What an experience to walk into the lecture hall of the De Beers Building, just after 08:00 on a Saturday morning (25 May 2019) and see about 120 Grade 11 learners, all dressed in white lab coats, ready for a day of chemistry experiments.
Also ready for action were Dr Rehana Malgas-Enus, Prof Catherine Esterhuysen, technical staff members Mr Jabu Lukhele and Mr Shafiek Mohamed, and about 15 Masters and PhD students to guide and facilitate the learners to conductthe five experiments of the prescribed Grade 11 chemistry practical, Intermolecular Forces, hosted by SUNCOI, the Stellenbosch University Chemistry Outreach Initiative.
Prof Louise Warnich, Dean of the Faculty of Science welcomed the learners, expressing her hope to see them back on campus as first year Maties. She also thanked the “Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans (SBA)" for financially supporting this initiative.
Dr Mvula Yoyo from the SBA, responded in Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa, confirming that the SBA is passionate about education and that is why they have been supporting this initiative for the past three years.
To start the day's activities, Mr Jabu Lukhele, from the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science gave the learners a Lab Safety Talk, because, as Dr Malgas-Enus said, “this is a chemistry building, guys and girls, safety is our first priority."
The learners then had a revision course about Intermolecular Forces by Prof Esterhuysen, the first female Professor in the Department of Chemistry, before Dr Malgas-Enus discussed the basic points of the experimental and demonstrated a sulphur experiment. Then it was off to the labs for a day filled with learning and understanding.
What is SUNCOI?
Dr Malgas-Enus, a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, who specialises in nanotechnology, is the founder of SUNCOI (SU Chemistry Outreach Initiative). When she was at school on the Cape Flats, she was the only higher grade mathematics learner, and one of only two higher grade physical Sciences learners. Despite having no chemistry lab nor any chemical resources in order to do experiments at school, she managed to obtain a PhD in Chemistry at the age of 28.
Shortly after her appointment at SU in 2012 and with the support of Prof Klaus Koch, then head of the Chemistry Department, Dr Malgas-Enus started working on the idea of an outreach programme that will enable her to make a positive difference to learners who were in the same position that she was in.
When the teachers requested assistance to present and assess the formal and informal practical assessments per year for their Grades 10 to 12 learners in Physical Sciences, she first studied the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) document to ensure that the experiments she was about to design, would be approved by the Western Cape Education Department. Knowing that many schools lack sufficient laboratory facilities and resources, she then decided to invite the schools to do these experiments in the university's labs over weekends. The final addition to make this initiative work was to involve the postgraduate students from the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science as facilitators for the learners while doing the experiments.
Since 2013, nearly 2000 learners have benefited directly from this initiative (coming to the university labs) and about 400 Physical Sciences teachers have attended workshops, in order to host the practicals at their schools, in their classrooms. Additionally, the SUNCOI team also designed kits with the minimum amount of chemical reagents and basic lab consumables needed to perform the complete practical five times. The most recent addition to SUNCOI's offering is the development of experiments for primary school learners as well as taking this initiative to rural areas such as Matzikama and Leeu Gamka.
Dr Malgas-Enus feels strongly that SUNCOI is not about recruiting learners for chemistry per se. “I am using the subject as a vehicle to show them that there are other ways to escape from the circumstances that you were born into. Realise that you have the potential and that nothing can hold you back. I can say that because I have been there. And if I could do it, so can anyone else."