College of Science, Engineering & Technology

Simplify and make science accessible

“We want to zoom in on the manner in which we deal with science and engineering. Science is supposed to be part and parcel of our daily life and everybody should appreciate it because it is part and parcel of who we are.”

Prof Mandla Makhanya, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor, was speaking at a roundtable discussion about science and transformation, themed Transforming Unisa: Academic and social justice for development, on 16 March 2017.

The Vice-Chancellor said that the university had chosen to embark on a journey of transformation and Unisa would continue to have such sessions throughout the year. He said that the university was looking at collaborating with other entities and communities to achieve its goals of transformation.

The Executive Dean of the College of Science, Technology and Engineering, Prof Bheki Mamba, addressed the issues that South Africa faced when it came to maths and science and misconceptions about science. He said it was difficult to talk about science and leave mathematics out: “Mathematics and science are like husband and wife; you can’t speak about transformation on the one and leave the other one out.”

Mamba said that transformation in the fields of science and education should start with transforming the mind-set of teachers. “It should start with us; we should start showing our learners that we love and enjoy it. We should also be ambassadors and advocates of the splendour of science and engineering at our schools.”

He said that transformation would take place when there was a shift in the overloaded matric syllabus from too much theory to a more practical approach. “It is because of science that we have access to clean water, bridges, energy, and so forth. That is why there is a need to bring the concepts of science to the people.”

Mamba said that the question of competency and skills of science teachers at schools should also be addressed as a matter of urgency. He furthermore said that there was a need for community engagement that transformed and improved humanity and society. “We should stop undermining the intelligence of our learners with the whole issue of Mathematics vs Mathematics Literacy,” he said.

Mamba encouraged academics to start writing textbooks that were informed by difficulties that learners encountered at tertiary level. “Africanisation of the curriculum is very important to the process of transformation. The use of new technology such as cellphones, computers, social media, newspapers, and podcasts to articulate discoveries and inventions in science and engineering, especially those that happen within our vicinity, is very important to push transformation in science,” he added. He continued to say that there was a need for scheduled open days at science and engineering campuses and that learner summits were needed to inspire our learners to have interest in these subjects.

Mentoring of less experienced academics would assist the process of transformation. This would help to expand the pool of researchers. He added that there was a need to move from research for publication to research for innovation. “Academics need to move from research in silos to multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and interdisciplinary research. We need to collaborate with other world-class universities and this includes other African universities. We need to move from blue sky research to a research that resolves local issues. We need to encourage staff to co-publish to maximise research output, and share expertise and knowledge as opposed to doing it for the points and subsidies,” he said.

“Are we an ivory tower, a select few talking to ourselves, or are we talking to our people as Unisa; we need to simplify science and make it accessible to our people.” he concluded.

National Student Representative Council (NSRC) members, Zonke Xanti, Zandile Sodladla, and Itumeleng Molefe responded to Mamba’s presentation. The NSRC raised the following issues: an application process that hinders transformation, lecturers and academic behaviour that are anti-transformation, throughput, and decolonisation of education as part of transformation and social justice for development of Unisa students.

Moipone Masalesa, the Regional Director for Gauteng, responded from a region’s perspective. She touched on the social justice development while the NSRC president, Zandile Sodladla, pleaded passionately for the need to bridge the gap between theory and practice in science and engineering.

A representative from the workers union, Rise Masingi, addressed issues around the negative perception about black students with regards to maths and science, gatekeeping and employment equity. He said that there was a need to look at gatekeeping, otherwise the status quo would remain the same.

Programme director Prof Linda Cornwell, Director of the School of Social Sciences within the College of Human Sciences, said that we are all talking transformation but that we need to start doing transformation and that transformation is a collective effort.

Staff members at the Science Campus and the other regional offices were connected to the seminar through videoconferencing.

*By Edgar Rathelele