Our South Africa Trip – a recount by Eoin Gillespie
In June 2023, in return to the visit of the University of Kwazulu-Natal Cell Explorers team to Ireland the previous November, Eoin Gillespie (Postgraduate researcher in Biochemistry and longtime Cell EXPLORER’s volunteer), Shannon Stubbs (Postgraduate researcher in non-formal science education) and Dr. Muriel Grenon (Cell EXPLORER’s director), travelled to Durban, South Africa for a knowledge exchange funded by Erasmus+ Programme. This blog entry is a recount by Eoin of their week spent there.
Selfie of the University of Galway Cell EXPLORER’s Team : Shannon Stubbs, Eoin Gillespie & Dr. Muriel Grenon in Umhlanga Rocks in Durban.
During our week in South Africa, we were hosted by Cell EXPLORER’s collaborators, Dr. Doras Sibanda (Senior Lecturer in Science Education) and Dr Bongani Prince Ndlovu (Lecturer in Science & Technology Education) of the School of Education, in the University of Kwazulu-Natal (UKZN - https://ukzn.ac.za).
Our trip was rich in experience. The first surprise was that UKZN is split into 4 campuses spread over 80km (!) and we got to meet different members of the UKZN staff involved in outreach programmes. These knowledge exchange meetings provided many opportunities for us to present what we do here in the University of Galway and how we run the Cell Explorers programme. We also met the local Cell Explorers team of volunteers and ran a training and a school visit with them!
Meeting our host Dr Sibanga and Dr Ndlovu in front the School of Education building on edgewood Campus
You can go in the different sections below to read a short summary of what we did and what I learned from it.
Visiting UKZN Science Education Centre:
On our first day at UKZN, we met Dr. Tanja Reinhart, coordinator of the UKZN Science and Technology Education Centre (https://stec.ukzn.ac.za/). Dr. Reinhart has her own space on the Westville campus of UKZN. There she can host schools and run multiple science outreach programmes that touch on geology, biology, physics, chemistry and even some computer science.
We also got to watch an example of a demonstration and then Tanja explained the different ways in which she provides the workshops. We discussed the importance of evaluation of outreach work and the difficulty of collecting data. We brainstormed together ways in which she could collect data on the benefits of the programmes she is running and we shared some of our own evaluation work here in Galway. Demonstrating impact is a way of securing more funding to allow programmes growth. Tanya was also very open to hosting some Cell Explorers sessions together with Doras’ team and possible scientists for the nearby Biochemistry building.
Meeting scientists on the UKZN Campus:
On our second day at UKZN, we were hosted by Professor Shahidul Islam, a leading diabetes researcher (https://lifesciences.ukzn.ac.za/shahidul-islam/), who gave us a tour of the UKZN Biochemistry department and provided an insight into the research they are interested in. We also received a tour of the various labs and facilities they have in their department, which was of great interest to me as a Biochemistry PhD student.
During our tour and meeting with the Biochemistry PIs we tried to encourage them to get their students involved with the different outreach programmes being run throughout the different UKZN campuses. Some showed a keen interest as they understood the importance of outreach programmes as it enables them to engaging their research with the general population, while also benefiting their students if they were to get involved. Indeed, they would develop unique skills one cannot gain from working in a lab, something I agreed with due to my own experiences working with Cell explorers during both my undergraduate degree and PhD.
With Prof. Islam outside UKZN’s Biochemistry Department.
Meeting the widening participation through educational outreach community:
Later that same day, we drove back to the Edgewood campus to meet lecturers invlovled in community engagement and service learning (https://soe.ukzn.ac.za/community-engagement/), a meeting chaired by Dr Bongani Prince Ndlovu. We got an insight into the different outreach programmes being run around Maths, Litteracy and cultural community involvement. This led us to reflect on best practices and to consider how we could adopt similar practices or programmes here in Ireland.
Meeting the UKZN Cell Explorers team of volunteers:
On the Wednesday of our visit to UKZN we travelled to the Pietermaritzburg campus to meet up with volunteers that would be taking us on the school visit with them.
The volunteers were made up of several Master’s students in education, technical support staff and PhD researchers.
Upon arrival we first began preparing reagents for the large number of students that would be attending the workshop the following morning. Here we got to share our ways on preparing the different reagents and what way is best to store them to make handing them out easier.
Once the preparation was completed, we delivered a volunteer Fantastic DNA training. I performed a practice demonstration as a way of preparing the volunteers for their role the following day. Here I pretended that I was demonstrating to children while stopping at the different stages to give tips or tricks I have developed during my years as a volunteer here in Galway.
Shannon then delivered her new communication training, developed from the Science Capital Teaching Approach and used to train our volunteers in Galway. This involved theoretical and practical elements where the volunteers practiced their introductions and how best to answer questions they may be asked when doing outreach with young people.
With The UKZN’s Cell Explorers team of volunteers.
From left to Right: Eoin Gillespie, Snegugu Nsimbi, Andile Shoba, Zethabile Mpanza, Minenhle Mathenjwa, Sphelele Ndlovu, Leseko Mocheko, Sameshen Pillay, Dr Xolani Mbuyise, Shannon Stubbs.
Fantastic DNA School visit:
On the morning of the school visit we met up with the volunteers again and completed the last bit of preparation. We then split up and travelled to the school we were visiting much like we do at home. This was a great way to develop relations with the different volunteers and give tell them stories about some of our own school visits in Ireland.
Dr Sibanda introducing the team to the pupils at the beginning of the visit.
The school visit itself was on a much larger scale than what we are used to in Galway. Around 80 children were in attendance. The workshop took place in a large assembly hall, where the children were split into around 8 smaller groups, each with one or two UKZN Cell Explorer’s volunteers. The UKZN team’s workshop involved an introduction to DNA, presented by the team leader, followed by the hands-on Fantastic DNA experiment individually facilitated by volunteers at their group’s tables.
Overall, the workshop lasted longer than it typically does in Galway. The UKZN team took time to keep the workshop slow-paced and include a lot of repetition of key words and concepts. This is because many of the children’s native language is Zulu and some do not start learning English until they are 6 or 7 years old.
It was great to be able to get involved and help whenever we were needed, something that I have enjoyed doing in Ireland for many years. But at the same time, we tried to stand back and observe as it gave us the chance to come up with ways, they could improve their delivery of the workshop and also ways in which we could adopt some of their ideas back to Galway and throughout our partners all over Ireland.
Dr Sibanda and the UKZN’s Cell Explorers team
In conclusion, our visit to UKZN in South Africa was filled with insightful knowledge exchanges and sparked reflections on best practices in different cultural contexts. Meeting with UKZN’s educational outreach community, academic staff and local Cell EXPLORER’s volunteers emphasized the potential for students and staff alike to gain valuable communication skills and perspectives through community engagement with young people of diverse backgrounds and the positive impacts this can have on the young people.
This knowledge-exchange was funded by Erasmus+, the EU’s programme to support education, training, youth and sport in Europe. Find more information at https://erasmus-plus.ec.europa.eu/.