Africa's largest science festival under way in Grahamstown

Thousands of learners have descended on Settlers Monument for Scifest 2017. Braving the cold and rainy weather, learners have come from all over the Eastern Cape to experience the annual science extravaganza.

Africa's largest festival on science, technology and innovation (STI) is celebrating its 21st anniversary under the theme "Tour de Science", with much of the programme focusing on journeys, tours, and paths of knowledge throughout the universe and to ensure the sustainability of planet Earth.

The programme features lectures, workshops and exhibitions, with a host of prominent scientists from different institutions in South Africa and abroad, including from the United States of America, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

Prof. Shivani Mishra, a 2016 Distinguished Women Scientist runner up in last year's Women in Science Awards, has hailed the festival as a "brilliant initiative" to teach young people and encourage an interest in science in South Africa. She presented a lecture on human behaviour and the visible philosophies of science, using the behaviour of water molecules – from evaporation from the Earth to cloud formation in the sky – as a metaphor for life's struggles.

Water molecules are kept down by gravity and, even when the molecules want to rise, they are held back by the surface tension of the water.  Eventually with great effort, the molecules break the bonds holding them back and evaporate into the atmosphere where they join up to form clouds.

Just as water molecules battle forces restraining them from rising up, so humans must contend with obstacles in their way. Prof Mishra believes that good work and perseverance are ways of overcoming difficulties.

She said that her philosophical outlook on life in general, and on science in particular, helped her to face the challenges of life and prevail over many of the inevitable disappointments of her career.

"Scientific phenomena are integral to the universe, humans and philosophy. What we have to do is to understand science and the philosophy behind it. I could be a scientist but philosophy will help me deal with the challenges life brings me," she says.

Prof. Mishra, a National Research Foundation-rated researcher with over 80 published scientific papers, believes that philosophy and all forms of sciences are correlated, and should be incorporated into education from primary school to tertiary level.

"I believe that school subjects like life orientation offer opportunities to incorporate philosophy to help prepare learners to deal with the challenges of life," she says, decrying the amount of time young people spend on social networks these days.

"It will not help me if I have a thousand likes to my Facebook post; and it is time-wasting. Technology is taking young people's minds away from learning about things like philosophy when they should be using it to learn about the world around them and how to make the world a better place," she said.

The Scifest programme includes many speakers of all ages who are enthusiastic about science. Bianca Reyneke, a Grade 12 learner from Welkom in the Free State, has invented a 10-minute physical exercise programme which she believes will help improve the country's performance in maths and science.

She presented a lecture called "I found a link", a project that won at the 2016 Eskom Expo for Young Scientists.  Her project is a study she conducted using information provided by an occupational therapist.  The study, done on 10 preschools assessed from 2005 to 2015, found that if a child's visual perception skills are not good in preschool and the child has low muscle tone, the child will struggle with mathematics and science in high school.

She says visual perception is getting in touch with 3D shapes and the environment, where you are able to see objects at different angles. According to her, research has proven that one is in a better position to imagine something if one has seen it before.

"By doing this 10-minute programme every day, children will increase their muscle tone and their visual perception will also improve.  In 10 years' time, when they get to high school, they will be able to do better in physical science and maths and choose careers in fields like engineering, which our country so badly needs."

From here on, Bianca will be following a group of children from Grade R over a period of 10 years, who will be assessed afterwards for their performance in mathematics and science.



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