published April 11, 2014

A SENCER Symposium in South Africa: Meeting Developing Challenges in Education for a New Democracy

Some sixty faculty members, researchers, and academic leaders from the University of Pretoria, the University of Johannesburg, and the Academy of Science for South Africa and others attended the SENCER Symposium held on March 12 in Pretoria, South Africa. Many participants expressed the hope that this would be the first of what could become an annual event.

Organized by Professor Debra Meyer, head of the department of biochemistry at UP and SENCER Senior Fellow, the symposium was designed to connect science learning with critical civic issues. More fundamentally, however, the organizers aimed to apply the SENCER ideals to improving "through put"—that is, the likelihood that a student will successfully complete a course of studies in the sciences. Given that the South African higher (tertiary) education system utilizes a very traditional large-enrollment lecture and episodic high-stakes testing pedagogies, a most compelling challenge is to move in the direction of adopting active learning strategies.

When Professor Meyer and her colleague, Dr. Marietjie Potgieter, a chemist and leader in UP's program to improve teaching and learning, initially applied for funding from a University group charged with supporting educational reform, they proposed bringing a UP team to the US to attend the SENCER Summer Institute, where "active learning in large scale classes" is a featured workshop topic. The Committee approved their application, but only on the condition that SENCER be brought to South Africa so that more faculty members could benefit directly from the investment.

With grant support from her University, Debra invited David Burns and Karen Oates, SENCER's co-founders, as presenters. She asked David to recommend another member of the SENCER community to join the consultant team. David, with what he calls his "pathetic grasp of political geography," recalled that Professor Garon Smith (aka "Gee Wiz") of the University of Montana was on sabbatical in New Zealand and recommended that Debra invite him to join the team. It turns out, of course, as we are all learning painfully from the search for the missing Malaysian airliner, there's a lot of ocean down there in the Southern Hemisphere. But Garon, who is equally intrepid and generous, graciously accepted the invitation and made the 16+ hour trip to Pretoria to participate in the Symposium.

Following an introduction and welcome from the dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, Dr. Anton Stroh, a mathematician and actuarial studies expert who was intrigued to hear about our Engaging Mathematics project, David and Karen gave an introduction, brief history, and overview of SENCER. David described SENCER's role in improving general education—something largely absent in European-inflected systems of tertiary education—and related the goals of STEM learning to democratic practice. Karen reviewed the ideals, located the SENCER approach within what contemporary cognitive science is discovering about learning, and reviewed opportunities for participants to become engaged.

In a separate plenary presentation, Karen gave an overview of active learning strategies. While doing so, she engaged the participants in experiencing some of these approaches, like "think-pair-share," with one another in real time.

Speaking from experience as an instructor in large classes as did Karen, Garon outlined his "stealth" approach to introducing SENCER in an introductory chemistry course that habitually enrolls several hundred students. Garon uses "complex, capacious, unsolved civic issues" from each of the main areas of work that his students hope to enter—fire service, nursing, environmental science, among others—as the material through which the basic chemistry will be taught and experienced. Garon's aim in his plenary presentation was to show how to introduce change in small, manageable steps, steps readily within the capacity of a professor even within an extremely traditional course format.

In his remarks to kick off the afternoon session, David commented on the "cultural shifts" that are entailed in the two great reforms that South Africa is undertaking: transforming itself into a modern democratic, multi-cultural state, on the one hand, and reforming STEM education to make learning more active and effective for a greatly expanding cohort of college students, on the other. Active learning and democratic practice both involve students and citizens asking questions, challenging claims made by others (including people—professors and politicians—in authority), and making their own decisions about what issues/matters/questions to pursue in the laboratory, the library, or the community. If such "activity" is considered disrespectful of authority or exposes citizens/students to risks or other bad consequences, then to be successful reform efforts in both domains will have to pay attention to how to create conditions that make these cultural shifts possible.

With this introduction, the afternoon of the Symposium was devoted to practical application and practice, itself. Participants broke into small groups to do a version of the "Designing a SENCER Course in 60 Minutes" based on the work of Jean MacGregor that Ellen Goldey and others have adapted and perfected in numerous iterations of the SENCER Summer Institute. Groups selected issues from the set of "institutional research themes" (IRTs) chosen by UP to think about and begin to plan courses and course activities on food security, energy, water, genomics, and others. A lively reporting-out session ensued. The conference wrapped up with comments by two remarkable doctoral students that Dr. Meyer had recruited to help organize the conference, Lungile Sitole and Bianca Verlinden.

Reflecting on the Symposium, Lungile, whose very apt nickname is "Sunshine," wrote:

I wish every teacher I had in college had attended a SENCER workshop. In order to enhance the critical thinking skills and promote understanding of today's students, one would be wise to SENCER-IZE their teaching methods. This workshop shed some light on the importance of civic engagement and science education and has inspired me to stick to my guns on becoming a science communicator!
Bianca, who expects to earn her doctorate later this Spring, observed:
As a student the concept of SENCER resonates with me, I especially learnt a great deal from Prof Karen Oates's lecture 'Active learning in large classes.' Just at the mention of her strategies I could envision their success because as a student that is exactly how I would want a lecturer to engage with me in the lecture hall. SENCER makes the shift from teaching students to creating educated, engaged citizens.
Professor Meyer summed up her appraisal of the meeting by noting,
I've introduced SENCER to South African and other African academics and students on a number of occasions; in lectures or in discussions with students and colleagues as well as (with Sheryl Broverman) at an event organized by the Association of African Universities. The message was always met with enthusiasm, agreement and energy, but never as tangible as this time in Pretoria. Perhaps being in such close proximity to the Oscar Pistorius trial where responsible citizens were grilled on their ability to distinguish the pitch of female compared to male screams, or the science behind the noise a cricket bat makes when it hits a toilet door versus a gunshot through that same door, made us brutally aware of how very involved 'responsible' civic engagement can be. Perhaps the persistent but uncharacteristic rains (the highest levels in March for 14 years in Guateng Province) had us all considering how unpredictable the world can be; or perhaps this time, having true believers doing the presenting, was the vital component for convincing faculty of a new approach which all the attendees agree, hold so many positive outcomes (enjoyment of science, retention of information, improved through put etc.) for both students and staff. I also know that the morning 'scones and cheese/ jam' contributed to a very South African 'kick-off' and seeing several giraffe and rhino families in their natural habitat was a fitting farewell for David, Karen and Garon.
To emphasize the value of assessment and to learn what participants believed could be done to improve future faculty-development programming, Karen, Garon, and David designed an evaluation instrument and questionnaire. The results have been tabulated, are being analyzed, and will be presented and discussed in an article to be submitted to Science Education and Civic Engagement—An International Journal.

The organizers have asked their American colleagues to post their presentations—including Garon Smith's presentation to the Chemistry department faculty, which he did in a special session on the day following the Symposium—along with other relevant resources on a dedicated page on the National Center's web site. This will be accomplished in the next several weeks. An announcement will be made in the e-news when this is available.

Dr. Marietjie Potgieter, whose scholarly interests have included a special focus on chemistry education, expressed her appreciation for the Symposium in the following words:
The speakers challenged us to broaden our vision of what can be achieved in undergraduate science courses beyond transmission of content knowledge. If course content is taught from the perspective of real societal issues students will see the relevance, engage more deeply with the material and retain knowledge better. In addition, students should be challenged to plough back their newly acquired knowledge and skills for the benefit of society as a whole. To quote David Burns, 'building a more mature democracy through education means training students for civic engagement.'

On behalf of his American colleagues, Karen Oates and Garon Smith, David Burns expressed his deep appreciation for the opportunity to share the SENCER ideals with South African colleagues and his thanks to Professor Debra Meyer for her vision and leadership for all that she and her colleagues did to make the Symposium possible.

Learn more about SENCER in South Africa [link http://www.ncsce.net/Initiatives/SouthAfricaInitiative.cfm 'here']