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Introducing learners to the wonders of marine science

By Thomas Mtontsi and Christopher Jacobs, SAEON Egagasini Node


As part of the Marine Science Programme implemented by SAEON through funding received from the British High Commission, a science workshop and camp were held for Grade 11 learners from various high schools in the Cape Central district of the Western Cape.

The week-long workshop, which was attended by 34 learners, began with four days of science talks and daily excursions to places such as the Two Oceans Aquarium and the University of Cape Town (UCT). The talks were presented by scientists and PhD students from several institutions, including SAEON, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA); the Department of Agriculture, Forest and Fisheries (DAFF) and the South African Weather Service (SAWS).


Learners climbed to the top of the mountain, gathering data as they went along (Picture: Thomas Mtontsi)


Day one kicked off with introductory talks by the workshop coordinator, Thomas Mtontsi and Offshore Marine Scientist Dr Lara Atkinson, both from the SAEON Egagasini Node. This was followed by a talk by Fikiswa Majola, a representative of the British High Commission, who told the learners more about the work of the British High Commission, including its support for SAEON's Marine Science Programme.

Mbongeni Tyesi, a member of DEA's Oceans and Coasts sector, kicked off the science talks with a presentation titled Science and Time, which took the learners on a journey through the evolution of science and scientific thinking. The learners were captivated by this talk, which led to a discussion about the various ways of thinking in science.

Lunch was followed by a trip to the Two Oceans Aquarium, where the learners viewed the different species of sea creatures found along the South African coast. Thomas Mtontsi gave a brief talk highlighting the importance of the oceans to the South African climate as well as in everyday life, which concluded the events for the first day of the workshop.

Day two began with a presentation by Ashley Johnson of DEA titled Intro to Oceanography, which outlined the basics of oceanography and highlighted the role that oceanography plays. This talk was followed by a presentation titled The History of Fishing and its Sustainability, presented by Jock Currie, a PhD student at UCT and a SEAON intern. He engaged the learners through lots of interaction and even awarded prizes to learners should they answer the questions correctly.

Lieze Swarts, a member of DEA's Oceans and Coasts, was next in line to present her very animated and energetic talk titled Fish Biology, which immediately captured the attention of the learners and led to lively interaction. SAEON's Charles von der Meden was next with his talk titled Sea Floor Observations - SkiMonkey at work, which introduced the learners to some of the instruments used in viewing the sea floor and how these can be used for locating and identifying different sea creatures and species. He engaged the learners by showing video footage collected by the SkiMonkey (a deep-sea camera used to record the ocean floor). Learners were highly entertained by this and asked numerous questions about the current work being done in this field.

Thomas Mtontsi's talk titled The Magic Planet and ARGO floats introduced the practical session for the day, during which the learners visited the computer labs where they learnt how to locate, retrieve and analyse some of the data collected by ARGO floats and drifters. This gave them the opportunity to use technology to view current data collected by the floats and drifters.

On day three, Mtshutshu Tsawaini (DEA) presented a talk which outlined how chemistry and oceanography are interlinked. He also took the learners on a tour of the chemistry labs where he works. Dr Lara Atkinson rounded up the day's programme with a talk titled Marine Biodiversity. She kept learners engaged with questions and images about marine biodiversity.

After lunch, the learners were transported to UCT, where they were welcomed by Pavs Pillay, a member of UCT's Marine Research Institute. They were introduced to two PhD students, who gave talks on how the oceanographic and marine sciences use computer modelling to advance knowledge about the oceans and surrounding regions. Pavs then rounded up the talks with a question-and-answer session about the requirements for tertiary studies. He advised the learners to work hard at school as this would enable them to achieve bursaries and scholarships.

Day four kicked off with a talk by Fannie Shabangu titled Acoustics - Pinging and Listening for Pigmies and Giants, which highlighted his work with various types of whales in the Southern Ocean and how he could identify them using acoustics. Zimasa Jika of DAFF was next in line with a talk titled Marine Aquaculture, which fascinated the learners especially as it highlighted the monetary value of marine aquaculture.

Richard Kilpert, a design expert with the Design Capital team of Cape Town, challenged the learners in his presentation to think "out of the box" when it comes to design and innovation in whatever they do. The learners thoroughly enjoyed this inspiring talk. Henning Grobler of SAWS then told the learners more about our weather and the requirements for joining SAWS.

SAEON's Tsitsi Bangira followed with a talk titled Remote Sensing of the Oceans, which gave the learners some insight into how satellites aid oceanographers in understanding the oceans. The last of the day's science talks, titled Science taking you places, was presented by Christopher Jacobs, an intern at the SAEON Egagasini Node. He gave the learners a brief glimpse into science research, writing and presenting and how good scientific work and research allows researchers to be taken to new and interesting places, both literally and figuratively. He ended his vibrant presentation by entertaining the learners with videos of various research cruises which have taken place aboard the SA Agulhas II.

The day's programme was wrapped up by Thomas Mtontsi, who gave a breakdown of the weekend's science camp at the Potberg Education Centre, where the learners had ample opportunity to experience applied science in the wilderness.

Marine Science Camp

Potberg, a CapeNature education centre, is located in De Hoop Nature Reserve close to Bredasdorp.

As the SAEON education programme works with five schools in the Western Cape, a group of learners from these schools were invited to attend the camp. In addition, Tania Moyikwa and Melikhaya Mdubeki were invited to share their experiences. Tania, a graduate from the SAEON programme, is a third-year oceanography student at UCT. Melikhaya represented the Egagasini Node at the Education Experts Symposium held in Pretoria last year.

Xolisa Dlomo (a UCT Masters student in Oceanography), Mbongeni Tyesi (Oceans and Coasts Marine Scientist) and Jimmy Khanyile (Deputy Director: Oceans and Coasts) were among the scientists that supported the learners in their field experiences. Sibongile Mokoena, SAEON's National Science Education Coordinator, spent a day and half at the camp encouraging the learners.

The objectives of the camp are to create a platform for the monitoring teams to interact; to discuss challenges and share understanding of monitoring work; to discuss the writing and presentation of scientific work; and to discuss and explore short-term monitoring projects.

Learning is fun

On the night trail, a problem-solving activity, a group of five learners were given a map and had to use the information provided to find a hidden message while on the trail. Quick thinking is encouraged in an uncomfortable environment. The learners described the activity as "fun, educational and challenging".

A group of learners went mountain hiking to monitor changes in temperature and pressure on different heights. The materials used for the exercise were one balloon, one ruler, string for measuring the diameter of the balloon and a thermometer to measure temperature as they scaled the mountain.


Christopher Jacobs, an intern at the SAEON Elwandle Node, entertains learners with videos of various research cruises which have taken place aboard the SA Agulhas II (Picture: Thomas Mtontsi)


Jimmy Khanyile, Deputy Director: Oceans and Coasts, explains some of the intricacies of marine science (Picture: Thomas Mtontsi)


Zimasa Jika of DAFF presents her talk on marine aquaculture (Picture: Thomas Mtontsi)

The first measurement was taken prior to the hike to enable learners to measure the effect that height has on the balloon. The group stopped at eight stations to take readings of the temperature, measure the balloon diameter with the string, and measure the string using the ruler. The readings were recorded for interpretation. The objective of this exercise was data collection and analysis.

In an attempt to encourage the learners to learn how to present their work and views, a debate on the topic of climate change was planned and facilitated among a number of groups. The nature of the debate challenged the learners, at times, to forget about their own beliefs and to argue for or against a motion.

What the learners had to say ...

"I really enjoyed being with learners from different schools. It was interesting learning from them and agreeing with each other about things we learned. This camp is awesome. It encouraged me to compete in the science expo." - Laieeka Eksteen

"This programme taught me a lot about marine science and it also taught me more about myself. I learnt what my strengths and weaknesses as an individual were, which encouraged me to overcome my weaknesses and work on what I was weak at." - Angelique Benjamin

"I hope what I learned will further my train of thought and would make my idea of what I want to become easier/clearer. Thank you so much for the exposure and experience. Experiences such as the evening hikes helped me to become more independent, to trust others and to work well in a team. The presentations on oceanography at the Foretrust Building were very inspirational and added to my general knowledge. Thank you so much!" - Muneerah Adams

When asked what she liked most about the programme, Angelique Benjamin from Tafelsig High School said: ‘I liked learning about the ocean, the organisms in the ocean and impact of the ocean on us as humans. I enjoyed the informative lessons at the camp. I like the fact that many people taught us different things, because that made the programme interesting.'

The SAEON Egagasini Node would like to acknowledge:

  • the British High Commissioner as the main partner and sponsor of the programme;
  • DEA Oceans and Coasts, for contributing to the programme content and for lecturing;
  • UCT for the excursion and for contributing to the content of the course;
  • DAFF as contributors to the content and for lecturing; and
  • the Western Cape Education Department's SOS Programme, for partnering with SAEON and expanding the programme.


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