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Inspiring winners in Africa

Bonkhe (front) and Sakhiwe (middle) with Scientific American Editor-In-Chief and Google Science Fair judge Mariette DiChristina (far left) and their teacher Titus Sithole (far right)
(Image source: Andrew Federman Photography, published here courtesy of Nature.com)

BA Education (Mathematics and Computer Science) student and full-time teacher, Titus Sithole, hit the international headlines earlier this year when two of his pupils won the first Scientific American-funded Science in Action Award, a $50 000 prize, as part of the Google Science Fair. The prize also includes a year of mentoring to advance the work. The article below is a shortened version of a 22 July post by Scientific American’s Anna Kuchment on that publication’s Budding Scientist blog. You can read the full blog post here.

The 14-year-old winners, Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Malalela, developed a simplified system for hydroponics, which increased crop yields by 140 percent. Their system uses 90 percent waste materials, including old cardboard boxes, sawdust and chicken manure.

Their teacher, Titus Sithole, introduced the Google Science Fair to the classroom earlier this year, and then supported his young charges in developing their project. Scientific American asked him about his experiences via e-mail just before he left for the Google Science Fair awards ceremony.

Please tell us about your school and your community.

Lusoti High School is a government school on company grounds. It is within Lusoti village, which is owned by the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation. About 50 percent of the learners stay in the village, while the other 50 percent commute to the school. Lusoti is in the Lowveld of Swaziland in a small town called Simunye. The main activity at Simunye is sugar production. Most of the learners who stay in the village are children of company employees. There are around 350 learners at our school, ranging in age from 12 years to 22 years.

How did you learn about the Google Science Fair and how did you introduce it to the class?

I surfed YouTube in December 2011—not sure of the date—and there was this advert about the YouTube Space Lab competition. I clicked to find out what it was all about then found a link to the Google Science Fair (GSF) 2011 video. I watched the video and then searched for more info about the GSF on the net. I was very interested in it, as I spent most of my free time learning more from the links in that site. That’s where I encountered Scientific American, LEGO and CERN for the first time. I knew about the National Geographic Channel. Today I am a big fan of CERN and Scientific American, and I visit their sites almost every day.

In January, on the first day of school, I used the PowerPoint presentation GSF prepared for educators to introduce GSF in class. However, I edited it to suit my classes, then encouraged the learners to study concepts beyond what they learn in class, in order to conceive project ideas. The majority of the learners said they could not take part, because working on a project demands a lot of hard work yet they have to do assignments on many subjects on a daily basis. Four projects (teams) came up from the junior classes. But only Sakhiwe and Bonkhe managed to be complete and submit their project before the deadline.

Two of the four groups currently working towards the GSF 2013 are already pressuring me a lot to check their projects. In addition, 50 percent of the school population have come to me once or twice asking if could I help them with their projects—most of which do not even exist yet.

We understand Sakhiwe and Bonkhe were most interested. How did you work with them on their project?

Sakhiwe came with their project concept drafted on paper and sought school facilities and resources to help them work out their project. They needed to use the school’s computers and Internet connection, and also the school’s premises for producing crops. They would work through the night sometimes, especially during their project site creation. I had to ensure that they accessed all the resources they needed from the school and were also safe when working at night by always being there when they needed me.

They are good, and what I liked most about them is that I never pushed them to submit anything to me for checking. Instead, they were pushing me almost every day, and telling me that they were going to California. To ensure that their ideas are communicated in a clear and simple manner, I ensured that I read all items they typed before they put them into their website.

It’s exciting to work or assist pupils who are self-motivated and know what they are doing. Being the only group out of four to submit before deadline in itself showed their commitment.

Do you have advice for science teachers?

They need to keep on learning themselves, and to keep pace with new discoveries and inventions to be able to understand and help judge the learners’ projects. Never stop studying. Never stop asking questions.

Anything else you want to add?

Most improvements in the lives of human beings have come about through science. Science is behind the industrial and the agricultural revolution and advances in medical care. Even at the present time, we are looking to science to bring about solutions to many pressing issues—among which is reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and acidic gases. Science projects serve as a pathway to conceptions that bring solutions to issues of major concern.

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