Growing up in Beacon Valley on the Cape Flats, a teacher once remarked that no one from this neighbourhood would ever become a doctor, let alone obtain a PhD in chemistry. Yet that is exactly what Dr Rehana Malgas-Enus achieved at age 28. Today, six years later, this Stellenbosch University (SU) alumna is a researcher and lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at her alma mater, where she specialises in nanotechnology.
Shortly after her appointment at SU in 2012, she approached the then head of department, Prof Klaus Koch, with ideas for an outreach project. With the department and some funding on her side, the next step was to find out how best to achieve this ideal. “I didn’t want to force our project onto the community. So we first organised a meeting with teachers from local schools to understand what they needed,” she explains.
The answer was unexpected, but crystal clear: “Please help us to comply with the CAPS guidelines,” they said. CAPS is the acronym for Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements and entails a revision of the current National Curriculum Statements. Since 2014, physical science teachers are expected to present and assess nine formal and twelve informal practical assessments per year for Grades 10 to 12. But the text books lack good examples of how to perform the experiments. Add to that insufficient laboratory facilities, apparatus or even chemicals, and the odds are that very few learners ever gain any practical experience.
So Rehana obtained the CAPS document, worked through it, and designed a series of CAPS compliant experiments for Grades 10 to 12 physical sciences. The next hurdle was to have the experiments approved by the Western Cape Education Department. Only then could the initiative, called SUNCOI (SU Chemistry Outreach Initiative), get off the ground. “We had to make it worthwhile for the teachers and learners to give up their Saturday for chemistry. I believe this is one of the main reasons why the workshops are so popular,” Rehana adds.
Since 2013, nearly 900 learners and 200 teachers have donned white lab coats and spectacles to perform the prescribed experiments in several of the Chemistry Department’s fully-equipped laboratories. SUNCOI relies on a group of dedicated staff and postgraduate students in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science.
In order to reach even more learners, SUNCOI presents an annual workshop for physical science educators from high schools in the Metropole South and Cape Winelands district. And to address the problem of resources, the SUNCOI team also designed kits with the minimum amount of chemical reagents and basic lab consumables needed to perform the complete practical five times.
Looking back at growing up on the Cape Flats, Rehana says she was fortunate to have grown up in a safe and loving home: “Even though I grew up in Mitchells Plain, I never went to bed hungry or cold. After my father passed away in 2003, my mom’s factory job kept us going. I worked hard to be where I am today because I knew how hard my mom worked for us.”
She feels strongly that SUNCOI is not about recruiting learners for chemistry per se: “Rather, I’m using chemistry as a vehicle to show them that there are other ways to escape from the gangsterism and drugs. Realise that you have the potential and that nothing can hold you back. “I can say it because I’ve been there. And if I could do it, so can they.”
- By Wiida Fourie-Basson -