News | Education 21.01.2014

Experimento seminar in Mthatha, South Africa, successfully completed

Not much is needed to conduct experiments in lessons: Among other things, participants at the workshop learned how to create models for chemistry lessons using simple means.

“Now we can also excel in this corner of the country. Thank you!” Birgit Grässer smiles as she reads the SMS from the participant of the Experimento advanced training for teachers she held in Mthatha on January 18. Mthatha is a town in Eastern Cape, South Africa’s poorest province. Classes that often have 60 or more pupils, poorly equipped schools and in some cases inadequate methodological training mean teachers there face a wide range of diverse challenges. The annual results in the central final examinations have been the worst in the country to date. Birgit Grässer is helping teachers tackle these problems proactively and so improve how scientific subjects are taught.

“Start with the teachers”: Discovery-based learning with experiments

Birgitt Grässer belongs to the team of Lilo Maclachlan. Together with Dr. Washington Dudu they offer Experimento advanced training seminars for teachers of scientific subjects at various locations in South Africa. Experimento, the international educational program from Siemens Stiftung, is based on the idea of discovery-based learning: Schoolchildren are to gain a better understanding of technical and scientific interrelationships by conducting experiments and so acquire knowledge that is vital to the development of a country or region. The workshops give teachers the tools they need for that.

The workshop on 18 January marked the end of the four-part series of advanced training seminars for the Mthatha region, in which a total of 35 educators took part. The workshops were partnered by the Walter Sisulu University, which held responsible for their regional coordination together with the expert supervisors in Mthatha District. “The biggest problem for our university is that particular students from rural regions who come to study here are inadequately prepared and only have little previous knowledge. It takes a very long time to plug the gaps in their knowledge,” explains Dr. Prince Jaca, Director of the WSU School of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education. “Tackling this problem by starting with the teachers is precisely the right way.”

New teaching methods

“The participants were very skeptical to begin with, but by the end of the first day you could see how much they were enjoying the workshop and how profitable it is for their everyday teaching work. Above all, the teachers benefit from the methodological part,” sums up Nozibele Siphambo, who supervises math, physics and technology teachers in Mthatha District. The feedback from the educators who took part was also very positive: “I was able to learn a lot from Lilo, Birgit, and Washington and have already conducted an experiment we discussed here with my pupils. It fitted perfectly into the curriculum,” says Sakhile Mseleku, a teacher at the Mandela School of Science & Technology in Mvezo. “Practical work is a huge help in explaining complex matters. You also really notice how pupils who are normally quiet open up and begin asking questions.”

To make the method easier to use in teaching, all participants were given a box containing materials for around 130 experiments and detailed instructions, but also learned that not much is needed to carry out experiments in lessons. “You don’t necessarily need expensive equipment. You can transform the classroom into a laboratory just with simple, inexpensive materials,” states Lilo Maclachlan.

Networking and sharing knowledge

“It’s also important for participants to keep in touch after the workshops,” stresses Prince Jaca, “both with each other and with the trainers and university. That enables them to learn from each other and benefit from the experience of the others.” Two lecturers from the university also took part in the advanced training so that teachers can continue to be provided with support and knowledge can be shared directly with students who are studying to become teachers. Cooperation with university departments of education is a special concern of Experimento.

“Think big, start small” – that is ultimately the message that Lilo Maclachlan gives participants on their way. “Don’t be afraid to try out something new – that’s the only way to bring about change!”