ASP Conference 2011
In continuation of a rather growing community engagement involvement, members of the Chemistry Department Rhodes University and Bristol University Chem Labs recently made a trip to the Western Cape presenting “A Pollutant’s Tale”. This outreach endeavour, coming shortly after the RUCE week, availed about 1,500 pupils across different schools around Stellenbosch the opportunity of experiencing and participating in the fun of science. From the simple ‘wonders’ of dry ice inflating a tied glove to the never disappointing hydrogen balloon ‘boom’, the kids simply remained captivated all through the presentations. A particularly funny thrill to this trip was having to present APT in a school chapel (did not stop the kids from shouting at the mere fun of science though), it was surprising that we had to leave the city of saints to be able to present APT under ‘saintly’ conditions.
As most are very aware, Cape Town never holds a dull moment. So with presentations behind each day, the team enjoyed the beautiful sights around the city. It was fun to visit some of the notable tourism destinations of Cape Town.
Playful and Purposeful Learning
Demonstrating catalysts, making oxygen, freezing bananas and creating slime is a course requirement for students, forming a part of the new Chemistry Honours service learning module at Rhodes.
When a grade 7 learner in an oversized lab coat held a candle attached to a long stick to a balloon, the flash combustion gave him a fright.
The class of forty-odd Grahamstown Primary learners roared with laughter at the sight of their classmate - but all in good fun - this is the Chemistry Department’s entertaining idea of science education.
It may be surprising that this wasn’t just fun and games for the learners or the honours level Chemistry students, Alicia Singh and Melody Mangeruke, conducting the class.
Joyce Sewry, lecturer in the Rhodes Chemistry Department, explained that the module gives students the valuable experience of working with children. “The most important thing is they learn to publicly communicate science,” said Sewry.
Developed through a collaboration with Bristol University, the experiments are designed to get kids excited about science from a young age. But the course also demonstrates one of Rhodes University’s core values, community engagement.
There has been a strong focus on community engagement in recent years, evident by its increasing integration into the curriculum. The Honours Chemistry module expresses the particular kind of engagement Rhodes seeks to do, it aims to be both relevant and mutually beneficial.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for them to come. They don’t have a lab at school and can’t do these experiments -- they can only do the basic ones,” said the principal of Grahamstown Primary, Leon Coetzee, who also attended the demonstration.
Coetzee explained that much of the science in the curriculum involves safety demonstrations and health promotion, and deals with things the learners encounter every day, like electricity and household detergents. “I think just dressing up in glasses and lab coats and to practically get involved with the experiments -- they enjoy it because they’re doing something.” Coetzee judged that the learners were so well-behaved because they were interested.
Not only are the learners discovering new things and getting excited about science, they are interacting with university students and seeing how career pathways are formed.
Former Model C and disadvantaged schools are exposed to opportunities that they may not have imagined, through these relatively brief but memorable interactions.
Such interactions are not entirely one-sided, however -- and that is exactly the point. “You can see that some students just take to it,” said Sewry, gesturing to an Honours student who had grown so enthusiastic she was taking over one of the demonstrations from her colleague. It’s a kind of experiment where there are valuable things to learn from both sides of the table.
Prof Nyokong receives “Distinguished Women in Chemistry” award
Highly acclaimed Rhodes academic, Professor Tebello Nyokong, has been selected for the 2011 Distinguished Women in Chemistry award by the Royal Society of Chemistry - Europe’s largest organisation for advancing the chemical sciences - and the Pan Africa Chemistry Network.
The award forms part of the PACN/RSC’s International Year of Chemistry celebrations. According to the RSC, this year also marks the centenary anniversary of Marie Curie being awarded her Nobel Prize for chemistry and a central theme of the year has been to celebrate women’s contribution to science.
Prof Nyokong is the director of the Nanotechnology Innovation Centre at Rhodes University and has received international recognition for her work in the field of chemistry and nanotechnology.
In 2009 she became the first South African scientist in the physical sciences and one of only five women in the world to win the prestigious L’Oréal-UNESCO award for women in science.
But while thrilled by the latest award from the PACN/RSC, Prof Nyokong insists that none of the awards she has received to date are for her alone. She says they must also be seen as recognition of the work of her students and staff – which she refers to as “my group”.
“They must also feel glorified and acknowledged by these awards. It’s not me alone.” She says that recognition of the African continent is also important.
“These are international awards and being able to show that, in Africa, good chemistry of international standing can also be done is very important. People tend to see Africa just in terms of violence.” She says she is also delighted that the award would be made in Africa.
Prof Nyokong will be honoured at a special ceremony during the PACN’s first Congress on Agricultural Productivity in Accra, Ghana, in November. She has also been invited to speak at the conference.
She said women were in short supply in the physical sciences worldwide and awards such as this one would encourage more women to move into these fields.
Prof Nyokong is globally respected for her pioneering work in medicinal chemistry and nanotechnology and is known to be extremely hard working.
But she dismisses this – saying she ascended the ladder in a male dominated world by working “smart not hard” as well as to the fact that she loves the work she does. “Don’t waste your time. Get things done and move on,” she advises.
Prof Nyokong has a passion for her students and says training them gives her the most joy. “My main concern is that we (Africans) don’t become consumers of technology or developments of other countries. We must also be generators and developers of knowledge and that can only happen with the younger people.”
She said international guests were often shocked at the advancements being made at Rhodes. Many come “from far and wide” to use the unique facilities at the university – including the R7m X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS) instrument, which she raised funding for. “It’s a paradigm shift for them to come to Africa to use our facilities and technology.”
Prof Nyokong has won numerous awards, including the science and technology category winner of the Shoprite Checkers/SABC 2 Women of the Year Award.
In 2005 she was bestowed with the Presidential Order of Mapungubwe bronze award by then President Thabo Mbeki and in 2007 the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation (NRF) awarded her the Research chair for Medicinal Chemistry and Nanotechnology.
More recently, Celebrating Excellence Organisation (CEP) magazine selected her as the most influential woman in education and training.
Barker Lecture 2011
By Rudzani Floyd Musekwa
Renowned Wits University Chemistry Professor, Neil Coville recently visited Rhodes University as a Barker Lecturer. Professor Coville was here to give the Barker lectures to post graduate students and staff. Coville, an Emeritus Professor at the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg said that this trip to the Eastern Cape and to Rhodes University also meant that he was visiting Grahamstown for the very first time in his life, something he said he was very happy about.
He said, “I am really happy to have been asked by Rhodes University to come down here and give these lectures to these exciting young minds in the chemistry fraternity. I am also very grateful that I got to come to Grahamstown for the very first time.” Coville, a Synthetic chemist, said that even though the Rhodes University Chemistry department was smaller in comparison to theirs at Wits University he found the environment ‘very much alive’. “The environment here is just out of this world, and when it comes to equipment they have in their disposal I am really impressed,” he said in his ‘visiting professor’s office at the department. Coville also said he was really honoured to have been invited to give lectures after one of the most respected chemists, Corry Barker. “To have been invited to do the Barker lectures is really an honour to me because this man was a giant in this field. It really sort of humbles you,” he said before admitting that even though he didn’t know much about the man he had done some research on him and he had great respect for him.
In his many years in academia Coville has had many honorary appointments both in domestic universities and outside the country in countries like Ethiopia and many others. The well travelled professor and former Head of the Chemistry Department at Wits University said that he still enjoys mentoring the young minds of the future chemists, especially when they really show a desire to chemistry and have the required curiosity towards chemistry. When asked what the future was like to future chemists Professor Coville said that the future was bright for hard workers in the industry. “The future really does look bright in the industry, but again it needs very committed people who also something to offer to it (the industry),” he said emphasising the need for hard work.
Big bangs wow learners for National Science Week
A group of gung-ho Rhodes Chemistry students celebrated National Science Week (1-6 August) by travelling to a number of Eastern Cape schools with their edutaining demonstration A Pollutant’s Tale.
On Friday morning, Grade 9, 10 and 11 learners at Ntsika Senior Secondary School were treated to an exciting morning of science, punctuated by big bangs and some surprises. The presentation was one of many National Science Week activities initiated by the Department of Science and Technology, aimed at promoting science awareness among learners.
Chemistry lecturer Ms Joyce Sewry introduced the show, reminding the learners of how “everything you use every day is because of science”. The year 2011 is also the International Year of Chemistry so the Rhodes group, headed by Ms Sewry, used some of the teaching materials developed by Bristol University to reach out to Eastern Cape schools.
Funded by the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (Saasta) and the Department of Science and Technology, A Pollutant’s Tale was shown at five other schools in the province; rural schools in Peddie and Keiskammahoek as well as Port Alfred and Cradock, ending with a show in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
Donning their orange lab coats, Godfred Darko, Sunday Ogunlaja, Kehinde Awokoya and Nicole D’Souza mixed a series of dangerous-looking chemicals to produce a series of startling experiments, keeping the learners wide awake and interested in science. The first of these was liquid nitrogen, which was used to freeze and shatter a rubber tube, a flower and a banana. Boosted by the charisma and enthusiasm of the students, the experiments were cleverly intertwined with an informal lesson on the gases found in the earth’s atmosphere which cause pollution. Some of the learners answered questions and were rewarded with a prize.
Another one of the senses was harnessed when D’Souza passed round cardboard strips dipped in liquids of various smells. The learners had a great time identifying these, which included vanilla, lemon and the unwelcome smell of the glandular secretions of a civet cat! Incomplete combustion, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, was demonstrated by Ogunlaja who set alight a large plastic bottle (which had been washed out with alcohol), producing a raging ball of blue flame.
The serious message of climate change was brought in towards the end of the demonstration, with a simple analogy of a granny sitting at a heater, symbolising the sun and the earth. The solution isn’t to move closer to the heater but to create a thicker, better ‘blanket’ by protecting the earth’s atmosphere. Projecting images of the peak of Kilimanjaro and a severely diminished Lake Chad onto the wall, it was brought home that we can all do something to prevent global warming by making some informed lifestyle changes.
Among the Centre for Social Development’s (CSD) highlights of the week was the performance of a puppet show that enthralled many children keen to follow the main character, Thandi on her journey to discover how our planet works. The children also had an opportunity to play with several interactive educational stations. Ms Vera Adams, the director of the CSD, said: “The CSD is the only stakeholder in the Eastern Cape that provided activities addressing the Early Foundation phase age group (five to nine years). Although the emphasis was on science, it also provided an opportunity for children from very diverse backgrounds to come together and just play and explore.”
The shows for the first three days were staged at St Mary’s Development and Care Centre, after which it travelled around Grahamstown to Victoria Primary and Ntaba Maria Primary School. Several pre-schools in the vicinity travelled to these venues to watch the show and take part in the activities. “Now that the puppet show has been developed we will be able to do more of these shows at all the crèches and pre-schools that we work in,” said Ms Adams.
Story and picture by Anna-Karien Otto