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Science in a box

Apr 09 2017 06:06
Jon Pienaar

CHANGING THE FUTURE MBA student Bathabile Mpofu encourages young pupils not to fear science, but to rather understand it. Earlier this year, Mpofu beat 24 000 entrants from all over SA to walk away with R600 000 and top honours in the Total Startupper of the Year competition. Her prize-winning creation, ChemStart, is a science kit that offersa fun experiment per week for the whole year for high school pupils. Picture:Je’nine may

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Johannesburg - Countries that study basic science enjoy faster economic growth, says Klaus Jaffe, coordinator of the Centre for Strategic Studies at 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 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 the country with an unequal two-tier school system.

Research by the SA 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.

The vast 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 schools do not have science labs.

In most rural and township schools, science – which begs for experiential learning – is taught from a textbook.

This means that many young pupils don’t get hands-on tuition in a subject where learning is far more effective when it is demonstrated.

As a result, many young first-year students who enter a university to study science have never even been in a lab.

As a social entrepreneur with a passion for education, Bathabile Mpofu has come up with a low-cost and effective solution to deliver science kits to underserved schools in South Africa.

“I remember 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 Mpofu.

She is the founder of Nkazimulo Applied Sciences, a company that develops science labs in a box for 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.

While studying for a BSc in chemistry and biology in 1997, Mpofu discovered that she wasn’t the only person who didn’t have hands-on science experience.

“We had practicals that started at 2pm and ended at 5.30pm,” she recalls.

“People who went to private or Model C schools were finished with their projects by 3pm.

"At 4.30pm 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.”

Mpofu graduated and started working in a commercial laboratory where she supervised interns.

She noticed that, despite graduating from universities, the young scientists had little experience when it came to basic laboratory tasks.


In 2015, 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 to 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 to explain basic lab equipment and processes to pupils.”

This pet project was financed by Mpofu and her husband.

After seeing what a difference this made in pupils who later studied science, she knew she had to try to make the project more effective.

“The kids 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 that the pupils could keep learning.

The first 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 project to be tested in schools.

Next, she entered Total’s Startupper of the Year competition and won R600 000.

This money gave Mpofu the ability to quit her day job and start producing and marketing the kit full time.

The kit 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 pupils who are handling the equipment.

Everything is housed inside polystyrene compartments, which fit into a sturdy cardboard case.

A booklet that describes the experiments and which is based on the school curriculum is included in the kit.

The idea is that there should be no more than five pupils per kit to maximise the hands-on experience.

It is now available in 15 schools.

Mpofu 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 we are – always dependent on someone else and some other country to create something new, which we then buy.” – Finweek

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