This year, Scientific American funded the first Science in Action award, a $50,000 prize as part of the Google Science Fair. The prize also includes a year of mentoring to advance the work. The 14-year-old winners, Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Malalela, developed a simplified system for hydroponics, which increased crop yields by 140 percent. Their system uses 90 percent waste materials, including old cardboard boxes, sawdust and chicken manure. Their teacher, Titus Mandla Sithole, introduced the Google Science Fair to the classroom earlier this year, and then supported his young charges in developing their project. We asked him about his experiences via email just before he left for the Google Science Fair awards ceremony, which takes place on Monday night.
Tell us a little about your background. How did you become a teacher?
I am Titus Mandla Sithole, 32 years old. I am a teacher at Lusoti High School. I have been teaching here for years, i.e. since I graduated at William Pitcher Teacher Training Colleague, where I obtained a Diploma in Education majoring in Science and Mathematics. I am currently enrolled with UNISA [University of South Africa] pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Education (Mathematics and Computer Science).
Please tell us about your school and your community.
Lusoti High School is a government school on company grounds. It is within Lusoti village, which is owned by the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation. About 50 percent of the learners stay within the village, whereas the other 50 percent commutes to the school. Lusoti is in the Lowveld of Swaziland in a small town called Simunye. The main activity at Simunye is sugar production. Most of the learners who stay within the village are children of company employees. The learners at our school are around 350 ranging, from 12 years to 22 years. Lessons at the school begin at 07:30 everyday up to 16:00 [4 p.m.]. There is a 20 minutes tea break at 10:00 and an hour’s lunch break at 13:00 [1 p.m.]. On Wednesdays, however, lessons run up to lunchtime and sports commence after lunch up to 16:00.The school has classes from form one to form five. Each class has two streams, meaning there are 10 streams in the schools.
How did you learn about the Google Science Fair and how did you introduce it to the class?
I was on YouTube in December 2011—not sure of the date—and there was this advert about YouTube Space Lab competition. I clicked there to find out what is all about then found a link to Google Science Fair 2011 Video. I watched the video and then searched more about the GSF from the net. I was very interested in it, as I spent most of my free time learning more from the links in that site and that where I met Scientific American, LEGO and CERN for the first time. I knew about the National Geographic Channel. Today I am a big fan of CERN and Scientific American. And I visit their sites almost every day.
In January, just on the first day of school, I used the PowerPoint presentation GSF prepared for educators to introduce GSF in class. However, I edited it to suit my classes, then encouraged the learners in class to study concepts beyond what they learn in class, in order to be able to conceive project ideas. The majority of the learners said they cannot take part, because working on a project demands a lot of hard work yet they have to do assignments on many subjects on a daily basis. Four projects (teams) come up all from the Junior Classes. But only one, Sakhiwe’s and Bonkhe’s, manage to be completed and submitted before deadline.
Two of the four groups are currently working towards the GSF 2013 are already giving me a lot of pressure in checking their projects. In addition, 50 percent of the school population have come to me once or twice asking if could I help them in their projects—most of which do not even exist yet.
We understand Sakhiwe and Bonkhe were most interested. How did you work with them on their project?
Sakhiwe came with their project concept drafted on paper and sought school facilities and resources to help them work out their project. They needed to use the school’s computers, Internet connection, school’s premises for producing crops, as well as for its safety, as they would work through the night sometimes especially during their project site creation. I had to ensure that they access all the resources they needed from the school and were also safe when working at night by always availing myself when they needed me.
They are good, and what I liked most about them is that I never pushed them to submit anything to me for checking. Instead, they were always pushing and pushing me almost every day, and telling me that they are going to California. To ensure that their ideas are communicated in a clear and simple manner, I ensured that I did read all items they typed before they put them into their Web site.
It’s exciting to work or assist pupils which are self-motivated and knew what they are doing. Being the only group out of four to submit before deadline on its own showed their commitment.
How do you think other teachers can inspire students about science?
Teachers have to emphasize the role of science in improving the lives of human beings on a day to day basis. They must encourage learners to relate every science lesson directly to their life encounters, whether at home, school or community at large. Teachers should use projects as one of the methods of teaching and learning in science. And competition of this nature (GSF) reallygive us teachers a challenge. It is up to teachers to expose their pupils, regardless of backgrounds, and have faith in them.
How can teachers support science-fair projects? What steps should they take?
Teachers must run science fair competitions beginning from the classroom level, where they can get experience winning projects and can then go on to the school level. After eliminations at the school levels, winning projects may then go on to the national or international level, such as GSF. Teachers should be role models, by asking questions themselves so as to encourage curiosity among learners. And cultivating curiosity at the class level will encourage students to study science as they try to solve everyday challenges affecting their lives.
Do you have any other advice for science teachers?
They need to keep on learning themselves, and to keep pace with new discoveries and inventions in order to be able to understand and help judge the learners’ projects. Never stop studying. Never stop asking questions.
Anything else you want to add?
Most improvements in the lives of human beings have come about through science. Science is behind the industrial and the agricultural revolution and advances in medical care. Even at the present time, we are looking to science to bring about solutions to many pressing issues—among which is reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and acidic gases. Science projects serve as a pathway to conceptions that bring solutions to issues of major concern.