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The camp that trains would-be scientists

By Joe Sibiya, Education Outreach Officer, SAEON Ndlovu Node


The SAEON Ndlovu Node's annual science camp for learners is the flagship initiative in the node's science education programme.

Each year the camp provides an opportunity for specially selected grade 9-11 learners from local high schools in the Phalaborwa region to participate in the environmental science education learning experience. Learners on the camp are exposed to scientists who engage them in intensive, structured, small-scale research projects aimed at stimulating their scientific knowledge and skills and promoting teamwork.


The intrepid Grassland team tackle their project with gusto (Picture: Sharon Thompson)

In addition, learners are introduced to diverse careers in environmental sciences and afforded the opportunity to complete career portfolios with the objective of guiding them in setting career goals for themselves, as well as identifying their abilities and career interests.

A group of 14 learners participated in the fourth grade-10 science camp held at Silver Mist Resort at Haenertsburg in the Limpopo Province in April 2014. The theme for the camp, "Biodiversity - comparison and contrast", served as inspiration for the learners as well as for participating scientists. The overall objectives of the camp were to strengthen the learners' scientific thinking by encouraging and enabling them to develop and complete their own scientific projects, and to evaluate personal skills and goals in the light of future career choices.


Grassland team members search for invertebrates occupying this habitat (Picture: Sharon Thompson)

What it means to be a scientist

In order to address the theme and the overall objectives, lectures were given and workshops held on a variety of topics, including what it means to be a scientist, choice of a career, environmental science careers, using scientific methods to design a scientific research project and sampling of study sites.

Dr Dave Thompson (SAEON) and Sharon Thompson (SANParks) presented a joint lecture on ‘Being a Scientist', which is aimed at developing the observation, thinking and project design skills of the learners. After the lecture the learners were asked to observe and describe three different habitats from a distance - grasslands, forests and plantations. They defined grassland as being comprised of grass only; the forest was described as having compact trees with different canopies and colour, while the plantation was defined as a habitat consisting of evenly spaced trees with the same canopies and colour.

Learners were then divided into three teams to sample the three different habitats. The following were identified as aims for their research project:

  • to determine if there were species in the grassland other than grass;
  • to research the biodiversity in the forest; and
  • to understand the plantation as a habitat.

Members of the Forest team collect data using a quadrant at each 15 m on a 30-m transect (Picture: Dave Thompson)


Sampling the habitats

Early the next morning staff members Sharon Thompson and Thobile Dlamini (Grassland), Dr Dave Thompson and Thabo Mohlala (Forest), and Thembi Marshall and Joe Sibiya (Plantations) led the teams to the study sites to begin the hard work of sampling the habitats. Each team diligently collected data at the respective sites. They were also expected to determine the different life forms occurring within the respective habitats.

Analysing the data

Later that afternoon it was time for the would-be scientists to start analysing their data and preparing posters for presentation the next day. It was inspiring to witness grade 10 learners taking control of their learning. The teams showed some insight into, and understanding of scientific methods by applying scientific method procedures in their research projects.


The would-be scientists analyse their data (Picture: Dave Thompson)


Presenting the research findings

On the final day, the teams presented their research findings. The research results of the Grassland team showed that while no trees occurred in this habitat, there was a multitude of other species like birds, insects and forbs other than grass. This was contrary to the early observation that only grass occurred in the grassland habitat.

The results of the Plantation team showed that plantations are unnatural, consisting of the same type of tree species planted in rows. The results were consistent with the early observation made that trees in plantations were evenly distributed. The team found other life forms like moss and invertebrates in the plantation.

The Forest team's research results indicated a mix of grass and forbs, and a combination of tall and short trees in this habitat. They also found different types of insects and birds in the forest.

The presentations culminated in a lively debate based on the research findings as to which habitat was more important. The Grassland team argued that their habitat was more important than the others because it provides grazing for cattle and offers a home to terrestrial insects and birds. The Forest team defended their habitat by saying it promoted biodiversity. The Plantation team presented their case that this habitat was more important based on its economic value.

Finally, a consensus was reached that all the habitats were important and that all of them needed to be conserved.

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