Sea View High School, a short 10 minute stroll from Axium’s offices, offers Physical Sciences and Chemistry for grade 10-12 learners but until recently has not had the equipment, space or resources to do the practical and more fun side of science. For the first time in years, the school has acquired a small cupboard of chemicals and laboratory equipment.
Sitting in a repurposed storeroom that had recently been cleared of books and building materials to be converted into a make-shift science lab, Rotshidzwa Mathuge, Sea View Science teacher proudly showed off the new equipment, “it’s small, you can see but it’s better than nothing; we are trying.”
Rotshidzwa started teaching science at Sea View High School in 2018, after spending 6 weeks at the school while completing his teaching practicals through Axium in 2017. “Growing up in rural areas, I wasn’t surprised at the conditions when I started teaching, but it was worse than I thought...to think that you could go a whole year without doing a science experiment.” He has been at the school for four years now and this challenge has made a big impact on him, “I guess that was the reason I stayed. We still need to do something here in this community and to come here only to find out the situation is not looking good and then run away, who then will stick around?”
He shared that his passion for Science has always been with him from high school through to university days where he majored in geology and chemistry at UCT. He remembers clearly, getting to do experiments for the first time when he was a grade 11 student, “the science teacher was also into hands-on learning activities and our school had a lab; I can still remember being able to do the activities, not just reading from the textbook. You could see the change in colours, you could smell things! Those were the moments you got to feel that you belonged in science.”
Rotshidzwa and his colleagues have tried many creative approaches over the years to bring science to life in the absence of a lab and the apparatus to do so. He shared that in 2018 during his teaching practical, the school had acquired 25 laptops and students were able to do their science practicals in pairs through science simulations on the screen. Unfortunately, the school had a break-in and the laptops were stolen which set them back. They occasionally are able to access a projector to project videos of science experiments onto the board that students can watch.
“But the problem is you can’t always do it like that. With science, they need to do it, not only listen and watch someone else. I believe that is the part that is affecting our learners the most. Learners are different and their ways of learning are different.” The school has also partnered with different institutions over the years. In particular, there was a teacher training programme through the University of Free State, which used to train teachers on how to use the hands-on learning activities and provided some materials to use at school. “At least then, the grade 8 and 9s were covered and we were able to stretch the materials for grade 10, 11 and 12s too. We could see the improvement in the learners performance and we even received a call from the DBE about the increase in learner performance.”
Rotshidzwa is a firm believer that hands-on learning activities have a great impact on the performance of learners and their understanding of content. “By doing it, they don’t have to rely on the terms or the language, which on its own is already a barrier, but when they do it they can attach it to their experience.”
They have also borrowed equipment from other schools and Axium in the past however, as Rotshidzwa explained, ”it’s risky because what if you break it? Each and every school has their own budget for their own learners so you can’t really borrow the chemicals if you are not going to be able to return them”. He explained also that many neighbouring schools have run out and are no longer in a position to help and that Axium only has a limited supply too.
Recently, in order for learners to be able to complete an experiment on titrations, the school had arranged for them to travel an hour and a half to a school with a lab in the nearest city, Mthatha. As they did not have the funds for this, they asked parents to contribute R200 each to cover transport and food costs. Unfortunately, they had to call the trip off due to an increase in covid-19 infection rates at the time. Rotshidzwa had an idea for how they could use this to their advantage, “The idea of going there to do an experiment was not an ideal plan in the first place because they go there, they do it, they come back and they have nothing. So I thought, what if we beg the parents to let us keep the money and use it to buy some apparatus for the school?”
However, he explained that this was not an easy ask on the parents, “In deep rural areas where we are, most of the parents are not working and are relying on social grants and so it’s very difficult for you to be earning a grant of R500 and then give the school close to half of your monthly income. Many people may also feel that the school has been surviving without this, so what’s special about us? We should just learn the way others are learning...”
Nonetheless, they initiated a conversation with parents and while some explained that they could not afford to do that because they had borrowed the money and needed to repay it, some parents allowed the school to keep at least half of their donation.” Through this funding, Seaview Highschool was able to purchase equipment to allow students to complete their practicals on titrations as well as some additional apparatus, chemicals and safety equipment.
“This is the first time since I started here in 2018 that we have had our own chemicals and apparatus to use. Though it’s not enough, it’s a small cupboard with about 220 students in grades 10-12 not even including the grade 8s and 9s. But it’s enough to start!”
However, the challenge doesn’t end there. In the past couple years, Seaview Highschool has had to restructure to include grade 8 and 9 learners while their infrastructure has not increased to allow them to comfortably accommodate these new learners. The issue of limited space and overcrowding has caused many ongoing challenges for the school. This has been a heightened concern with the additional challenges of covid-19 safety precautions but even before this, every year, they have to suspend classes for grades 8-11 learners for weeks at a time while grade 12 students write their annual exams in order to comply with exam regulations.
Needless to say, this means there is not adequate space for learners to do their experiments but Rotshidzwa has a temporary work-around solution. “We now have six complete sets to do a titration experiment. So where there are 60 students we can divide them into 10s and they can do it in six groups." However, in order to complete this experiment it will take the class up to 3 weeks to complete. As Rotshidzwa explains, “I will bring 10 learners into the storeroom at a time, but I can’t leave the rest of the class unattended so we can’t do the experiment during school hours because what will the other learners do in the class while I’m here with the small group? So the plan is to do it during after-school, alternating groups over the next couple weeks. Even though it was going to be more effective if we could do it at once, it is what it is.”
Rotshidzwa’s dream is for the school to be able to build a proper space where students can learn in a hands-on way and be free to move around in a safe environment. “As well as apparatus and supplies, what we really wish for is a proper lab where we could fit a class of learners; or even half the class!”
Reflecting on the progress that they have made as well as keeping the end goal in mind Rotshidzwa is hopeful that the story of Science at Sea View High School won’t end here.
“The best we can do is to stay positive. As you can see, we were not here when we started,” he said, indicating to the new equipment and storeroom, “I believe something will work out.”
If you, like Rotshidzwa, share a passion for Science or a passion for learners having access to quality, equitable education, please consider supporting Sea View High School in their initiative to raise funds for a science lab and the equipment to fill it! We encourage you to share this with your nerd-networks wide and far. Donations can be made through Axium’s website here with the reference Seaview Science.