THE methods of interactive science centres “exactly match” SA’s, and Africa’s, developmental needs, says Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor .
This is because such centres are cost-effective, “language free” and hands-on, which suits multicultural, multilingual societies with educational imbalances. But some centres are struggling to stay open because of “funding challenges”.
SA has 31 science centres, such as the Cape Town Science Centre; Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng; the new visitors’ centre at Pelindaba nuclear facility; and Sci-Bono Discovery in Johannesburg.
Matric passes in physical science and maths are important in the government’s drive to develop a knowledge economy and create jobs.
But in recent years, international tests comparing countries’ school-level performance in maths and science, literacy and numeracy have repeatedly put SA at or near the bottom of the list .
This week, Cape Town hosts the sixth Science Centre World Congress — the first time an African country has hosted the science congress. It has attracted more than 400 delegates from 55 countries.
Ms Pandor acknowledges the shortcoming s of SA’s education system: “While last year’s final grade 12 results show an overall improvement in mathematics performance, there was little overall improvement in physical science. Our public school infrastructure in terms of libraries and laboratories requires considerable attention.”
Ms Pandor says science centres have a critical role to play in the development of human capital and in strengthening the science culture in SA and Africa as a whole.
While there are more than 2400 science centres in the world, less than 2% of them are in Africa, says the president of the African Academy of Sciences, Mohamed Hassan. “Africa has about 1-billion inhabitants, but 40% of them are under the age of 14, so interactive science centres would tap their talent and engage them in science.”
But “the great value of science centres in enhancing a popular understanding of science is not appreciated by the majority of African leaders”, he says, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation — not the African Union — has led the development of science centres in Africa.
Ms Pandor punts science centres as the way to get young people excited about science.
“The methods used … exactly match Africa’s developmental needs: they offer cost-effective ways of strengthening our science and technology culture, and their relatively language- free exhibits and hands-on experiential teaching methods are ideally suited to multicultural, multilingual societies with educational imbalances.”
Despite the minister’s praise, some South African science centres face closure or a suspension of operations.
The Cape Town Science Centre, ironically one of the hosts of the congress, has been considering its future after MTN had not renewed its sponsorship after 10 years. The centre has been closed for almost a year, spokeswoman Gabi Gelderblom says. “We had a 10-year agreement with MTN, which came to an end at the end of 2010. After that, we couldn’t afford the rental (for our premises) in Canal Walk.”
But the centre is expected to reopen in December, in new premises in Observatory, thanks to R5m from the Department of Science and Technology.
Department spokesman Tommy Makhode says there are four main sources of funding.
One is the provincial education departments; another is companies. “ArcelorMittal, for example, supports three science centres, in Saldanha, Newcastle and Sebokeng,” he says.
Universities are another funding source, with centres affiliated to the institutions.
The fourth source of funding is the department, which budgets R7m for science centres.