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A trip into the sciences

The top performers on tour at the Cullinan mine.
Science edutainment at Sci-Enza.

Focalisation can informally be defined as the narrowing of the area coverage by orientating and zooming into a specific focal point. The National Youth Focus Week which involved the top 100 performers in the National Science Olympiad was structured in such way that it profiles science careers so as to encourage or orientate the focus of the top performers in STEM orientated fields.

The first excursion of the National Youth Focus Week was a tour of Cullinan Mine near Pretoria. Learners were taught the history of the mine and exposed to the mining techniques including machinery utilised, the process flow, as well as the different disciplines of engineering employed in the diamond mining industry. This group of learners had inquisitive minds and maintained a stream of questions to the tour guides ranging from complex technical, essential, yet straightforward. The learners were encouraged to choose a career path in STEM and informed of the valuable contributions they can make in society, the different sectors of the economy, as well as the industries.

From the noisy shafts of the bling diamond mine, learners were taken to the parched rich engravings and history of the arid ancient civilisations of Southern Africa. They visited the Wits Origin Centre to zoom into the indigenous heritage of Southern Africa. This excursion tapped into the sciences of anthropology, which was a Pandora’s Box of a host of other sciences such as indigenous knowledge systems and conservation to mention a few. Although learners looked perplexed by some of the discussion concepts, they quickly grasped and appreciated how the ancient civilisations of Southern Africa were scientifically and environmentally conscious. The learners beamed with excitement on hearing they were to take a detour to view remnants of the Cambrian Era. This part of the journey involved paleo sciences, and the learners showed their interest by bombarding the tour guide with a multitude of questions once again. This group of learners is considered the “crème de la crème” of science, and therefore, were never lost in translation, engaging with the tour guide intensely and diving deep in the adventures of prehumen times and extinct lifeform epochs.

One of the significant aspects of the 2018 Focus Week was that it created a conducive environment for peer learning, allowing learners the opportunity to interact with each other - sharing information and at times discussing scientific concepts at length. It was amazing to find learners not relying on facilitators but venturing through the day’s excursion independently, only using the tour guides as references. There was a little more initiative taken by the learners at the National Zoological Gardens, with small groups venturing through the excursion, discussing the anatomical structures of a particular animal and outlining the differences between similar organisms/species.

The peer learning theme flowed throughout the week, and it became evident at NECSA, where the tour facilitator, Lucky Mametja’s approach, would allow the learners to interact more freely, i.e. the learners discussed in great detail, the scientific correctness of the big bang theory. It felt like a room filled with astrophysicists sharing ideas. The Sci-Enza visit was a fun affair - science edutainment that incorporated play. The espionage of the camera obscura gave learners a view of their surrounding from a different perspective. The excursion was both serious and light-hearted, with the learners exposed to a wealth of information.

Apart from the excursions, the focus week programme included a number of presentations from various organisations such as the Department of Public Works (DPW), the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) and Makobandlela Youth Empowerment Organisation (Manyeo). Each of the organisations came well equipped with teams of young professionals to profile the different career opportunities that each organisation has to offer. Interestingly, the role modelling sessions morphed into a platform where learners could engage with the young professional about technical issues such as conservation and sustainability. The SANEDI team were pleasantly surprised by the learners’ keen interest in how to store carbon dioxide gas underground and how to generate electricity through wave power. Such topics lit up the room, dominated, and lingered for an extended period. While on the other hand, the Manyeo session imparted vital life lessons to the learners, tackling issues ranging from hard work to sensitive self-motivation. Cancer treatments and ethical medical practice were a major highlight that seemed to have triggered considerable interest in medical research for the learners. Gaps were also bridged when learners got to understand how interdependent the professions are in the world of science. The DPW team outlined the importance of investing on sound construction practices in order create architecturally sound designs, elegant civil crafted structures, and texturally sustainable living spaces, while also maintaining an expanding culture of integrated conceptual growth.

The focus week culminated with an expression of appreciation from the learners, proving once more that focalisation is like a compass that aids in navigating the near-far seas of opportunities and possibilities. A great Sesotho idiom states that “Thupa e kojwa e sa le metsi” which directly translates to “a rod is bent while it is still wet”, in this case meaning; by intervening early to shift and steer the focus and perception of the top performers in the science orientated careers, the intervention’s objectives will be eventually be successfully realised.