that study basic science enjoy faster economic growth, believes Klaus Jaffe,
coordinator of the Centre for Strategic Studies of Simón Bolívar University in
Venezuela. In his study of World Bank GDP data and scientific publications in
poor and middle-income countries, Jaffe and his team as found that scientific
productivity in basic science – including physics, chemistry and material
sciences – correlated strongly with countries’ economic growth over the
following five years.
But in South
Africa, science education is wanting. The apartheid legacy left SA with an
unequal two-tier school system. Research by the Institute of Race Relations’
Thuthukani Ndebele shows that private schools and former Model C schools are
well funded and well equipped. But township and rural schools – often run on a
‘no-fee’ basis – typically do not have money for expensive equipment.
majority of South African schools have no science laboratories, according to
statistics released by the department of basic education in 2015. In number
terms, 86% of this country’s 23 589 public ordinary schools do not have science
rural and township schools, science – which begs for experiential learning – is
taught from a textbook. This means many young black learners don’t get hands-on
tuition in a subject where learning is far more effective when it is
demonstrated and practised. As a result, many young first year students who
enter a university to study science have never even been a lab.
the first time I went into the lab, I thought: ‘What do I need to do here?’ It
was quite an intense and nerve-racking experience,” says Bathabile Mpofu, the founder
of Nkazimulo Applied Sciences, a company that develops science labs in a box
for underserved high schools. After her experience of being taught science
using only a textbook at school in Mahlabathini near Ulundi, the Durban-based
scientist-cum-social entrepreneur decided to step into the breach.
studying for a BSc Chemistry and Biology in 1997, Mpofu discovered she wasn’t
the only person who didn’t have hands-on science experience. “We had practicals
that started at 14:00, and ended at 17:30,” she recalls. “People who went to
private or Model C schools were finished with their projects by 15:00. At 16:30
I, and the other students like me, were still trying to figure out what needed
to be done. This really knocks your self-esteem and you actually start to think
you’re stupid, even when you’re not,” she says.
graduated and started working in a commercial laboratory where she supervised
interns. She noticed that despite graduating from universities, the young black
scientists were under-experienced when it came to basic laboratory tasks.
Science in a car boot
Mpofu and her husband decided to do something about the situation. “We bought
chemicals, glassware and other equipment,” Mpofu says about her first efforts
to try and get basic lab equipment into underserved schools in KwaZulu-Natal.
“I’d prepare everything, put it in my boot, go to a school, and try and explain
basic lab equipment and processes to students.”
project was financed by Mpofu and her husband. After seeing what a difference
this made to students studying science, she knew she had to try make this
project more impactful.
became enthusiastic about science, but after I left with the equipment, what
then? We needed a sustainable solution.” That’s when Mpofu came up with the
idea of making science kits for schools. She’d do the demos, but would leave a
kit behind so the students could keep learning.
ChemStart kits were developed with the aid of seed funding from the University
of Cape Town and the SAB Foundation. Later Mpofu applied for funding from
Lifeco Unlimited, which enabled the kits to be tested in schools. Next she
entered Total’s ‘Startupper of the Year’ and won a prize of R600 000. This
funding gave Mpofu the initiative she needed to quit her day job and start
producing and marketing the kit full time.
comes with all the glassware (test-tubes, beakers and measuring tubes) and
chemicals needed for a variety of experiments, and there are even safety
goggles for the learner who is handling the equipment. Everything is housed
inside polystyrene compartments, which fit into a sturdy cardboard case. A
booklet is included that describes the experiments, which are based on the
school curriculum. The idea is that there should be no more than five learners
per kit, to maximise the hands-on experience. It is currently available in 15
believes that science and technology are critical to building the economy,
because innovation is founded on scientific discovery and original thinking,
which in turn are founded on a good foundation in science education. “If we
can’t get that right,” she says, “then we’re going to remain the way that we
are – always dependent on someone else, some other country to create something
new, which we then buy.” This
article originally appeared in the 30 March edition of finweek. Buy and download the