Change the world


Some 3002 learners, mainly in matric, from 57 schools across the Vhembe District of Limpopo Province, and their educators, collaborated in a science outreach programme hosted in the Vhembe District by Nelson Mandela University and the University of Venda (UNIVEN) from 2 to 5 May 2023.


By Professor Azwinndini Muronga (Executive Dean: Faculty of Science, Nelson Mandela University, Professor Natasha Potgieter (Executive Dean: Faculty of Science, Engineering, and Agriculture, University of Venda and Dr Eric Maluta (Head of Department of Physics, UNIVEN).

The Vhembe district includes a large number of rural schools and annually produces a high percentage of top matric learners, especially in mathematics and science. On average, half of South Africa’s top 20 matric learners are from the Vhembe District.

What is encouraging is that from each of the 57 schools participating in the outreach activities, the number of female learners outnumbered the males, as there is active encouragement of girls to study maths and science.

The schools are close to the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, in the Vhembe east and west education districts, including the Niani Circuit, Tshilamba Circuit, Vhembe West and the Nzhelele Education Cluster.

The distances covered were vast and the university teams were joined by several exhibitors from national departments and institutions, including UNISA’s Science Centre mobile lab, the National Research Foundation’s South Africa Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (NRF-SAASTA), the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI); STEAM- SA (promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics using e-learning); the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Agricultural Research Council (ARC); the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment; Penreach’s Shalamuka Science Centre( NGO focused on educational excellence in rural communities); among others.

As part of the outreach activities, science experiments and demonstrations were conducted by the exhibitors, and interactive discussions and presentations aimed at fostering a fascination with science and to educate learners about ‘science for society’ were held.

Nelson Mandela University's Computing Sciences department empowering learners with fun coding activities.

It’s essential to have these science engagements at schools in every part of our country, as the declining number of students studying maths and science at South African universities is of serious concern for the country. Science is essential in achieving a better world through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Africa Agenda 2063.

Regrettably, there is a pervasive belief that maths and science are difficult and most learners drop these subjects. This is a hurdle that we need to overcome together as a nation, just as we have to overcome the problem in many of South Africa’s rural areas where learners trying to study science do not have laboratories.

During the outreach, the Vhembe learners also attended workshops on career guidance, academic requirements for university access and the opportunities available in science-related fields, aimed at encouraging them to consider pursuing science as a career.

The aim was to expose learners at the school level to what our two institutions offer. Many learners do not know about the many fields of science they can study at university if they get a good university pass in maths and science.

They were therefore informed about careers in astronomy, astrophysics, biophysics, engineering, robotics, coding, data science, data management, mechatronics and automation, to name a few.

Several postgraduate students and young academics from UNIVEN and Nelson Mandela University were present and served as role models during the discussion with learners. Several of the female learners commented that they were encouraged by seeing young female scientists who are working on their Masters and PhD research.

PhD student from Nelson Mandela University sharing information about the science programmes.

Nelson Mandela University is well known in Vhembe as it has been partnering with UNIVEN in science outreach programmes in the Vhembe district since 2017.

It is part of the strategy of the Faculty of Science at Nelson Mandela University to actively partner with institutions and communities in rural areas, Vhembe being one of them. The learners are also exposed to all the other faculties at Nelson Mandela University by student recruitment teams.

The learners were encouraged to ask questions and they actively did so.

With load-shedding dominating all of our lives, the learners asked about careers in renewable energy, and the outreach teams could give them in-depth feedback as both universities have strong programmes on renewable energy.

Another common question was what they can do if they didn’t do well in Grade 11 but they know they are doing well in Grade 12. The outreach teams explained that most applications for universities in South Africa close in about August/September, so students can apply using their June 2023 Grade 12 grades, providing it isn’t a programme that closes early like medicine.

We are honest with them and we tell them that they should have been achieving well in Grade 11 and before that, because getting into universities is very competitive. The outreach teams also met with Grade 11s and impressed on them the need to pay attention to their studies, and how important good grades are.

The universities offer programmes to assist the school learners achieve in maths and science. The Govan Mbeki Mathematics Development Centre from Nelson Mandela University was in Vhembe in 2022, engaging with educators to show them the advantages of using various apps and online programmes to advance learners’ maths and science ability.

The learners visibly expressed their excitement and interest in science, and praised the programme's hands-on approach and interactive activities. It sparked a new level of interest among them, which will hopefully translate into higher enrolment in maths and science-related courses and careers.

Several of the schools focus on IT, but one of them, Luvhivhini Secondary School, has specifically chosen to focus on agriculture in their curriculum, which is hugely important for food security.

Both UNIVEN and Nelson Mandela University offer agricultural science programmes and we would like to increase the partnership and engagement between these programmes.

Another strengthening factor in the collaboration between UNIVEN and Nelson Mandela University is the fact that both universities offer distinctly different climatic and geographic environments.

UNIVEN is situated in a subtropical environment and Nelson Mandela University is situated on the coast. This enhances several areas of research. In physics, for example, an existing collaboration is performance assessment of wind and solar systems in the respective environments.

The same applies to other fields, like forestry, and it gives staff and students the opportunity to experience both.

Nelson Mandela University also has an Ocean Sciences Campus and national facilities such as the Centre for High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy (CHRTEM) where materials can be investigated to the atomic level, which UNIVEN students and researchers can use.

During the outreach programme, Faculty of Science members from Nelson Mandela University and UNIVEN participated in a collaboration symposium to discuss how to strengthen existing collaborations and establish new partnerships in a wide range of disciplines and transdisciplinary fields, including the Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Ocean Sciences, Microbiology, Botany, Forestry, Agriculture and Physics.

Several researchers from the two universities presented their research projects and results at the symposium:

Professor Paul Watts from Nelson Mandela University presented on ‘Drugs for Africa’, including his work on ARV production in his lab at a large scale. He has and proposed that South Africa makes our own HIV drugs to cut down on the costs of importing drugs.

He also presented on how his lab uses other chemical structures to produce a range of widely needed drugs. Several universities are interested in collaborating with Prof Watts in terms of producing drugs for newly discovered chemical structures in their respective research.

Dr David Tinarwo from UNIVEN presented on renewable energy research projects and their impact on local communities, including their successful collaboration with several communities in Vhembe to establish solar systems and renewable energy in the form of biogas.

This research project offers internships for local people to learn how to build solar systems and biogas energy-generating systems, which encourages entrepreneurship and helps to addresses the unemployment crisis within rural communities. The Physics departments at UNIVEN and Nelson Mandela University have an existing partnership in photovoltaic research.

Professor Peter Adesoye from UNIVEN presented on 21st century climate-smart forestry education in which the two universities are collaborating. They are educating forestry science students in environmental conservation, the sustainable management of forest, land and wildlife resources and equipping them to be able to help communities in the sustainable use of their forests.

Professor Afsatou Traore from UNIVEN presented on the use of XS ImageXpress software to assess the efficacy of medicinal plants. Several research papers have been published on this since 2010, in collaboration with Professor Maryna van de Venter from Nelson Mandela University’s Biochemistry lab.

Clovis Bhiya from the Faculty of Natural Resource Science & Management at Nelson Mandela University’s George Campus presented on sustainability research and the qualifications the George campus offers that are compatible for collaborations with UNIVEN.

At the end of the symposium a task team was established to formalise the collaboration which will include student and staff exchanges, co-supervision of postgraduates, and research. The collaboration will advance the respective institutions’ capacity to solve problems in Africa by African institutions.

UNIVEN is a gateway to other African universities and is strategic geographically for research visits and collaborations in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Botswana. The mutual strategy calls for us to have a footprint in Africa and UNIVEN is closer to a larger number of southern African universities outside South Africa than it is to many universities in South Africa.

Overall, the outreach strategy has proved itself in terms of students gaining access to- and advancing at university. The number of students and postgraduates from Vhembe enrolling at Nelson Mandela University has increased over the years, not only in the Faculty of Science but in all faculties.

A future aim is for UNIVEN to join Nelson Mandela University in outreach activities in Gqeberha and the Eastern Cape to grow awareness about UNIVEN in this province. 

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057