The ma­jor­ity of SA’s schools do not have sci­ence lab­o­ra­to­ries, leav­ing ta­lented pupils at a dis­ad­van­tage

CityPress - - Business - JON PIEN­AAR busi­ness@city­

Coun­tries that study ba­sic sci­ence en­joy faster eco­nomic growth, says Klaus Jaffe, co­or­di­na­tor of the Cen­tre for Strate­gic Stud­ies at Simón Bolí­var Uni­ver­sity in Venezuela. In his study of World Bank GDP data and sci­en­tific pub­li­ca­tions in poor and mid­dle-in­come coun­tries, Jaffe and his team found that sci­en­tific pro­duc­tiv­ity in ba­sic sci­ence – in­clud­ing physics, chem­istry and ma­te­rial sciences – cor­re­lated strongly with coun­tries’ eco­nomic growth over the fol­low­ing five years.

But in South Africa, sci­ence education is want­ing. The apartheid legacy left the coun­try with an un­equal two-tier school sys­tem.

Re­search by the SA In­sti­tute of Race Re­la­tions’ Thuthukani Nde­bele shows that pri­vate schools and former Model C schools are well funded and well equipped. But town­ship and ru­ral schools – of­ten run on a “no-fee” ba­sis – typ­i­cally do not have money for ex­pen­sive equip­ment.

The vast ma­jor­ity of South African schools have no sci­ence lab­o­ra­to­ries, ac­cord­ing to statis­tics re­leased by the de­part­ment of ba­sic education in 2015. In num­ber terms, 86% of this coun­try’s 23 589 public schools do not have sci­ence labs.

In most ru­ral and town­ship schools, sci­ence – which begs for ex­pe­ri­en­tial learn­ing – is taught from a text­book.

This means that many young pupils don’t get hands-on tu­ition in a sub­ject where learn­ing is far more ef­fec­tive when it is demon­strated. As a re­sult, many young first-year stu­dents who en­ter a uni­ver­sity to study sci­ence have never even been in a lab.

As a so­cial en­tre­pre­neur with a pas­sion for education, Batha­bile Mpofu has come up with a low­cost and ef­fec­tive so­lu­tion to de­liver sci­ence kits to un­der­served schools in South Africa.

“I re­mem­ber the first time I went into the lab, I thought: ‘What do I need to do here?’ It was quite an in­tense and nerve-rack­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Mpofu.

She is the founder of Nkaz­imulo Ap­plied Sciences, a com­pany that de­vel­ops sci­ence labs in a box for high schools.

Af­ter her ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing taught sci­ence us­ing only a text­book at school in Mahla­bathini near Ulundi, the Dur­ban-based sci­en­tist-cum-so­cial en­tre­pre­neur de­cided to step into the breach.

While study­ing for a BSc in chem­istry and bi­ol­ogy in 1997, Mpofu dis­cov­ered that she wasn’t the only per­son who didn’t have hands-on sci­ence ex­pe­ri­ence.

“We had prac­ti­cals that started at 2pm and ended at 5.30pm,” she re­calls. “Peo­ple who went to pri­vate or Model C schools were fin­ished with their projects by 3pm. At 4.30pm I, and the other stu­dents like me, were still try­ing to fig­ure out what needed to be done. This re­ally knocks your self-es­teem and you ac­tu­ally start to think you’re stupid, even when you’re not.”

Mpofu grad­u­ated and started work­ing in a com­mer­cial lab­o­ra­tory where she su­per­vised in­terns. She no­ticed that, de­spite grad­u­at­ing from univer­si­ties, the young sci­en­tists had lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence when it came to ba­sic lab­o­ra­tory tasks.


In 2015, Mpofu and her hus­band de­cided to do some­thing about the sit­u­a­tion.

“We bought chem­i­cals, glass­ware and other equip­ment,” Mpofu says about her first ef­forts to try to get ba­sic lab equip­ment into un­der­served schools in KwaZulu-Natal.

“I’d pre­pare ev­ery­thing, put it in my boot, go to a school, and try to ex­plain ba­sic lab equip­ment and pro­cesses to pupils.”

This pet project was fi­nanced by Mpofu and her hus­band.

Af­ter see­ing what a dif­fer­ence this made in pupils who later stud­ied sci­ence, she knew she had to try to make the project more ef­fec­tive.

“The kids be­came en­thu­si­as­tic about sci­ence, but af­ter I left with the equip­ment, what then? We needed a sus­tain­able so­lu­tion.”

That’s when Mpofu came up with the idea of mak­ing sci­ence kits for schools.

She’d do the demos, but would leave a kit behind so that the pupils could keep learn­ing.

The first ChemS­tart kits were de­vel­oped with the aid of seed funding from the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town and the SAB Foun­da­tion.

Later, Mpofu ap­plied for funding from LifeCo Un­lim­ited, which en­abled the project to be tested in schools.

Next, she en­tered To­tal’s Star­tup­per of the Year com­pe­ti­tion and won R600 000.

This money gave Mpofu the abil­ity to quit her day job and start pro­duc­ing and mar­ket­ing the kit full time.

The kit comes with all the glass­ware (test tubes, beakers and mea­sur­ing tubes) and chem­i­cals needed for a va­ri­ety of ex­per­i­ments, and there are even


CHANG­ING THE FUTURE MBA stu­dent Batha­bile Mpofu en­cour­ages young pupils not to fear sci­ence, but to rather un­der­stand it. Ear­lier this year, Mpofu beat 24 000 en­trants from all over SA to walk away with R600 000 and top hon­ours in the To­tal Star­tup­per of the Year com­pe­ti­tion. Her prizewin­ning cre­ation, ChemS­tart, is a sci­ence kit that of­fers a fun ex­per­i­ment per week for the whole year for high school pupils

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