Sci­ence grad­u­ate in­spires youth

Ka­roo high school wins medals in Young Sci­en­tists com­pe­ti­tion

CityPress - - Voices / Careers - VERON­ICA MOHAPELOA pro­jects@city­press.co.za

Ob­tain­ing a ter­tiary qual­i­fi­ca­tion in math­e­mat­ics or sci­ence is no small feat and opens doors to a va­ri­ety of ca­reers. Given South Africa’s apartheid past, such a qual­i­fi­ca­tion is par­tic­u­larly lifechang­ing for black grad­u­ates, mak­ing it sought after in to­day’s highly com­pet­i­tive job mar­ket. High-pay­ing jobs, over­seas teach­ing ca­reers, or even se­cur­ing fund­ing to con­duct re­search for post­grad­u­ate stud­ies are pos­si­ble ... the world is your oys­ter.

But for Itume­leng Molefi, these lu­cra­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties held lit­tle ap­peal. The 27-year-old phys­i­cal sci­ence grad­u­ate, with an hon­ours de­gree from the Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand, pre­ferred to re­turn to his com­mu­nity.

Itume­leng teaches phys­i­cal sci­ence to grades nine to 12 at the lo­cal high school in the small Ka­roo town of Carnar­von. The con­struc­tion of the world’s largest ra­dio tele­scope, the Square Kilo­me­tre Ar­ray (SKA), has cat­a­pulted the lit­tle-known town on to the world’s as­tron­omy stage, with the SKA core site only 80km away.

Carnar­von has been be­dev­illed by social prob­lems for years, as the town had few job op­por­tu­ni­ties and no sig­nif­i­cant in­dus­tries. But since the start of the SKA South Africa (SKA SA) project, an ini­tia­tive of the depart­ment of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy (DST) that is run by its Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion, the town has seen a boost in lo­cal eco­nomic devel­op­ment.

Gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to sup­port the SKA SA project. In this year’s state of the na­tion ad­dress, Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma wel­comed the DST’s im­ple­men­ta­tion of a tech­nol­ogy lo­cal­i­sa­tion strat­egy that would see high-end elec­tron­ics and me­chan­i­cal sys­tems de­vel­oped lo­cally for the MeerKAT tele­scope.

The MeerKAT is be­ing con­structed on the SKA site in the North­ern Cape as a pre­cur­sor to the SKA-1. It will con­sist of an ar­ray of 64 dishes and will be by far the most pow­er­ful ra­dio tele­scope in the world un­til the SKA is com­pleted.

Zuma said the tech­nol­ogy lo­cal­i­sa­tion strat­egy had en­sured that the R2 bil­lion MeerKAT tele­scope was con­structed with 75% lo­cal con­tent.

“This has led to job cre­ation in the North­ern Cape and the di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion of the econ­omy through the cre­ation of ar­ti­san and main­te­nance jobs, and the pro­mo­tion of sci­ence as a ca­reer of choice,” Zuma said.

And, while the mega build­ing project is only ex­pected to be com­pleted in 2050, the wide­spread spin-offs – in­clud­ing in­fra­struc­ture devel­op­ment, the es­tab­lish­ment of knowl­edge cen­tres, and social in­vest­ment through bur­sary op­por­tu­ni­ties – are al­ready trans­form­ing lives, es­pe­cially in Carnar­von.

Itume­leng is one those who has ben­e­fited from the social in­vest­ments, re­ceiv­ing an SKA SA bur­sary for his hon­ours de­gree. After ob­tain­ing his post­grad­u­ate qual­i­fi­ca­tion, Itume­leng chose to teach, as he is pas­sion­ate about help­ing to im­prove lives. It was no easy jour­ney, and he de­scribes his first year of teach­ing as a learn­ing curve.

“I was one of those peo­ple who used to be­lieve that I knew all the prob­lems in ed­u­ca­tion and I was go­ing to be a teacher and solve all those prob­lems. I think you only start to re­alise what the ac­tual prob­lems are and how dif­fi­cult it is to solve them once you are inside,” he says.

As is the case else­where in the coun­try, qual­ity sci­ence ed­u­ca­tion is lack­ing in Carnar­von. How­ever, with teach­ers like Itume­leng mak­ing a dif­fer­ence, the qual­ity of phys­i­cal sci­ence teach­ing for high school learn­ers has im­proved. The turn­around at Carnar­von High has re­sulted in the school win­ning na­tional sci­ence com­pe­ti­tions.

Itume­leng proudly re­mem­bers the 2015 Eskom Expo for Young Sci­en­tists com­pe­ti­tion, the first in which a Carnar­von learner par­tic­i­pated. A Grade 9 learner won a bronze medal for his project.

The school has since en­tered 12 learn­ers in the com­pe­ti­tion, and ob­tained a bronze and a sil­ver medal at re­gional level. But for him it’s more than just win­ning com­pe­ti­tions or pass­ing sub­jects, it’s also about learn­ing to solve prob­lems us­ing phys­i­cal sci­ence skills.

“My per­sonal goal is to try to have pupils take some­thing away, to learn some­thing, even if it is just the dif­fer­ence be­tween an in­de­pen­dent and a de­pen­dent vari­able, which is some­thing you can use in real life.”

Itume­leng may be new to the teach­ing pro­fes­sion, but he is al­ready dis­play­ing the wis­dom of an old hand. He be­lieves trans­form­ing lives is about more than just teach­ing sci­ence; it is also about in­still­ing dis­ci­pline and gen­eral life skills. “Over a pe­riod of 12 months, I can see the change and I think they are learn­ing some lessons that will stay with them for the rest of their lives, such as the im­por­tance of punc­tu­al­ity.”

The Carnar­von High School story shows how sci­ence can trans­form lives. As Min­is­ter of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Naledi Pan­dor said re­cently dur­ing a sci­ence en­gage­ment event, “We now see with the young peo­ple … that as­tron­omy and sci­ence can change com­mu­ni­ties, can change lives, can cre­ate op­por­tu­nity, and can build new hu­man cap­i­tal in ar­eas never imag­ined.”

MAK­ING SCI­ENCE COOL Itume­leng Molefi out­side his class­room at Carnar­von High School

JOY Itume­leng Molefi’s en­thu­si­asm for sci­ence is in­fec­tious

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