In the coming years as the planet continues to warm, communities in the global South are expected to bear a disproportionally heavy burden as the world is impacted by climate change. With significant numbers of threatened species, a precious array of World Heritage ecosystems, and thousand of miles of coastline dotted by vulnerable fishing communities, the looming threat to biodiversity is especially meaningful on the African continent. What better place then, to focus efforts on science education than in a South African township, where learners will grow into adulthood facing some of the challenges more directly than in other parts of the world?
This is but one reason for our excitement about the Biodiversity Skills Pilot Group, a select group of 24 Grade 11 learners who are studying with us toward the goal of gaining admission to university in 2019 to study biological sciences and biodiversity. The origins of this program were in a conversation with Debra Roberts of the Department of Ethekwini Municipality in 2015. I was introduced to Debra by Veena Naidoo, of the ….who was working with the USP to bring a group of Cato Manor learners to the Engineering Winter School on UKZN’s Howard College Campus. Among the many wonderful aspects of my first formal meeting with Debra to discuss the Biodiversity group idea was discovering a Brown University plaque in her office. As a proud Brown alumna, I was so pleased to learn she had been a visiting scholar on Brown’s campus a few years earlier.
Far more important than our shared connection to Brown was our mutual interest in developing future leaders in scientific fields and our conviction that meaningful outreach to learners had to begin in an earlier and more meaningful manner than simply providing bursaries for university study. For Debra, this all stemmed from her need to find qualified, Masters-level applicants to hire in the Deparment. In years past, there had been seemingly greater numbers of Life-Sciences graduates applying for spots with the Municipality, but at that time the trending pressures of climate change and biodoversity loss did not feature prominently in their training. A few years later, graduates in newer fields such as environmental management became more numerous, but these applicants lacked a solid grounding in biological science. Thus, Debra’s interest was in cultivating a cohort of stong university students who could eventually present themselves as well-qualified job candidates in her deparment.
For me, the Biodiversity group idea doevtailed perfectly with the USP’s mission of working with secondary-school learners’ acccess to and readiness for tertiary study. Working with such a forward-looking deparment of the Municipality seemed an ideal context wihting which to further those efforts. Inorder to be awarded the contract to provide this work, we had to submit a detailed proposal in response to a public-sector RFP, a first for the USP. We learned a hard lesson the first time -- when the proposals are due at 11:00 AM on a Tuesday, this does not mean 11:01 AM on a Tuesday. Though I knew generally where the eThekwini office was where bids were to be submitted, there was a rather lengthy distance between where one had to park and the office itself. A mad dash of several hundred yards to the submissions window got me there a minute too late. Embarrassed, I had to phone Debra’s office to let her know we had missed the bidding deadline! Lucky for us, the call for proposals had to be repeated anyway, because an insufficient number of vendors had applied. We got our next chance, and eventually, the service-provider contract.
We are now a few months into the inaugural year of the Biodiversity Skills Pilot Group, with twenty-four fabulous Grade 11 learners who were chosen on the basis of a written application and their success in both mathematics and life sciences in Grade 10. To date, we have done experiments demonstrating how photsosynthesis works. We have visited the Durban Botanic Gardens for a plant biology program. We have worked on study skills, watched Life Sciences films, continued with our maths classes, and gone looking for evidence of biodiversity on our school grounds. We are looking forward to the start of our Computer Skills Unit in Term 3, in partnership with St Henry’s Marist College and Advantage Learn.
I feel quite sure that we can prepare these learners for admission to university. I hope we can find bursaries to help some of them pay for their studies. And throughout, I remain especially glad to be working to enable a group of township learners from the southern part of Africa to become leaders in a field which will have particulatr meaning for their community -- and for the many other vulnerable communities facing the most significant threats posed by drastic and far-reaching envionmental change. These learners will not be marginalised or in need of catching up. They will be out in front, leading the rest of us.