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Reaching out to learners in rural Phalaborwa schools

By Joe Sibiya, Science Engagement Officer, SAEON Ndlovu Node
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MTech student Thobile Dlamini, SAEON Ndlovu Node, visited Nsthuxeko, Baranuka, Nkateko and Majeje Sebalamakgolo schools


PhD student Sally Mthombeni, SAEON Ndlovu Node, visited Lebeko, Lepato, Maphokwane, Matome Malatji, Sebalamakgolo, Nsthuxeko, Baranuka, Nkateko and Majeje schools


Teacher Regina Lebeya was assigned to teach at Lebeko, Lepato, Maphokwane and Matome Malatji schools

From 20 February to 17 March 2017, SAEON’s Ndlovu Node conducted science-engagement curriculum-based activities at various designated schools in the Phalaborwa area.

Sally Mthombeni (node-based PhD student), Thobile Dlamini (node-based MTech student) and Regina Lebeya (node-based teacher programme, Physical Sciences and Life Sciences at Baranuka School) conducted activities at schools in the SAEON education programme, while Zimasa Gibisela, Vulani Mabunda and Edith Baloyi (all from Transfontier Africa) focused on primary schools (that do not form part of the SAEON education programme).

Topics presented ranged from Conservation Practice to Soil Chemistry for high schools, and Importance of Trees and Animal Behaviours for primary schools.

Here Thobile, Sally and Regina share their experiences in implementing science-engagement learner-reach activities at the SAEON schools:

We visited the schools assigned to us in the period 27 February to 9 March 2017. Lessons started between 7:30 and 8:00 and ended between 13:30 and 14:30. Before the start of each lesson, learners had to fill in an attendance register. Each lesson lasted 60 minutes and we reached our target of 240 minutes of teaching per day.

Target grades were 8 to 11 and modules taught involved Planet Earth and Beyond, Statistics, The Solar System, Geology, Soils and Biodiversity. Subjects within which modules were extracted included Life Sciences, Natural Sciences, Geography and Mathematics, but some conservation topics such as Water Conservation and The Environment were incorporated within modules.

Our teaching styles included using a projector for PowerPoint presentations in schools with electricity and flip charts and chalk boards in schools with no power. At the end of each lesson, learners participated in an exercise aimed at evaluating the impact of the lesson and testing their understanding of the topic. We are delighted to report that every evaluation was positive.


It is very common that in the presence of teenagers not everything always goes well. It frequently happens that one or two learners misbehave. Unfortunately, we experienced that during our time at the schools. We gave them only two options - "either be in class, behave like a learner and gain some knowledge" or "go outside, misbehave and gain nothing". Luckily this worked well.

It was fascinating to note the manner in which learners enjoyed to be taught in English and the confidence they displayed when responding to questions or asking questions. However, there were instances where language (English) was a barrier. Some learners could barely communicate in English, which required code switching into vernacular.

Also, a minimal content knowledge of topics such as energy flow through ecosystems was noted. At the end of each lesson most learners were eager to continue learning and at some point even asked that lessons be continued after school. When asked to name the reasons why, their response was, "you teach us in English and you make it easier for us to understand’.

Furthermore, teachers indicated that their learners had enjoyed all the lessons and asked whether we would be coming back to teach them. In general, all the teachers were welcoming and supportive. Most of them sat through a number of lessons and said they enjoyed each and every one of these.

Concerns and recommendations

The main problem we encountered was a lack of resources and facilities such as computer labs, electricity, chairs and tables for learners. A GIS practical lesson was planned, but had to be cancelled as most of the schools did not have computer laboratories or electricity.

What we found quite disturbing was seeing learners sitting on the floor and writing on their laps because they were determined to acquire an education. How are these learners expected to perform when they lack such basic needs?

This illustrated the challenges the South African government is facing in providing basic education needs. At some point, there were two learners per chair and only five tables in a class of 72 learners (see picture below). This school needs urgent attention and assistance from anyone who would be able to assist, for clearly the government has failed them especially since they had written to the Department of Education several times without receiving any response.

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In this school two learners had to share a chair and there were only five tables in a class of 72 learners

Thobile Dlamini at Baranuka School at the Matiko-Xikaya Village in Lulekani

Comments from learners and teachers included the following:

  • Why is the programme so short?
  • The lessons are very effective but why are they too short?
  • Teachers requested GIS training for themselves
  • Please come back and give career guidance to our learners
  • We need more such programmes in our schools


This was a great programme and we would be glad to do it again, even if making a difference in such a short period is like the movement of a tortoise. We would like to suggest that, in future, the programme should be longer to have greater impact.

Based on our experiences we conclude that this project served as an eye-opener to all of us. It made us realise how underserviced most of our public schools are. It is not only the learners’ fault when they underperform – there are many factors at play.

We grew up with the perception that a classroom has chairs and tables where learners can sit and write, but from our experiences with the schools we visited we were totally wrong.

We appeal to the Department of Education to be more hands-on at all the public schools in all the provinces to resolve the problems they experience, especially in terms of the shortage of tables, chairs and electricity. This would be money well spent.

We are pleading for ‘a good Samaritan’ to reach out to Baranuka School; it is depressing to learn in such an environment.

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