Building the next generation of young scientists and learners in Mamelodi

The classroom buzzed: with talk, with laughter, with young minds at work. In small groups, young scientists and learners leaned in to discuss real environmental and health problems in their community and think of how research could solve them.

Sponsored and organised by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), some of South Africa’s most promising young scientists had taken time out from their studies to engage with school learners about real-world science at the Mae Jemison Reading Room in Mamelodi, one of the poorer areas of Pretoria. This event, which took place on 11 May 2018, was part of ASSAf’s preparations for the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Physiology/Medicine, to be held in June this year in Lindau, Germany. Every year South Africa sends its most talented young scientists to this global gathering, and this was a chance for delegates from this and previous years to give back to their communities. Funding support is provided by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

“Seeing the learners’ enthusiasm and the hunger of the next generation of young scientists left me encouraged not only to learn more, but to learn more in order to give back more, to help pave the way for young brilliant minds,” said Ms Shireen Mentor from the University of the Western Cape (UWC), one of this year’s nominees to Lindau.

For many of these delegates, this is far from their first taste of community outreach in the sciences. In fact, many of them run their own outreach initiatives. Ms Edith Phalane from North-West University (NWU studies heart disease in HIV patients. She has organised outreach days to help rural communities better understand high-blood pressure and the health risks that come with it. Another delegate, Dr Bianca Verlinden from the University of Pretoria (UP), has been involved for several years with getting young children excited about science and research.

The Mae Jemison Reading Room is an initiative started and funded by the United States Embassy in Pretoria and hosted at UP’s Mamelodi campus. Founded in 2006, the building houses a library, computer room and several classrooms. Learners from schools around the area come to the facility every day after school to get help with their homework and learn new skills like coding or participate in events like this one.

“We get up to 200 learners coming here every day,” says Ms Ruth Koko, a cultural affairs specialist at the US Embassy and deeply involved in the running of the centre. “The kids really love it here.”

The reading room is testament to the power that sustained financial and educational investment in a community can have. The officer now responsible for the daily management of the centre was once a student doing her homework here; one of the local teachers is also an ‘alumnus’, and now she makes sure that her learners are getting the same opportunities by visiting the Mae Jemison Reading Room after school. The overall goal is to promote education, entrepreneurship and employment – in other words helping people making a living.

The goal of ASSAf’s science outreach day was a little different. The young scientists were very keen to teach the kids about research, and how a research career could help them address the problems they saw within their communities.

“It was amazing to see how the learners took the scientific methodology that we explained to them to apply it to the environmental problems they already see in their communities,” said Ms Phalane. “They were so eager and ready to go out there and solve those problems through research.”

The true impact of this outreach event showed itself at the end of the day. At 4pm on a Friday afternoon, when they were told they were finished and that the delegates had to leave, nobody budged. Intense conversations continued, and it took at least another 15 minutes of chatting, selfies and laughter before the researchers could be dragged away, like celebrities from their adoring fans. But the true celebrities were the young learners for whom the hope is an interest and uptake in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

The ASSAf-nominated delegates to the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting are: Ms Blessing Ahiante (NWU), Ms Shireen Mentor (UWC), Ms Edith Phalane (NWU), Ms Zimkitha Soji (University of Fort Hare), Dr Eileen Thomas (Stellenbosch University), and Dr Bianca Verlinden (UP). Other South African delegates this year include Mr Keith Ncube, Ms Elsa Nolte and Dr Michelle Visagie (all from UP) and Dr Balindiwe Sishi (Stellenbosch University).

Article by Paul Kennedy, ScienceLink

The South African delegates leave for Germany on June 23 2018. To follow them on their journey, follow @ASSAf_Official, and keep an eye on the ASSAf and SciBraai websites for updates.