Education 'key' to SKA rollout

2012-07-10 11:20
The Paper experiment has proved the viability of the SKA site proposed by SA. (picture provided)

The Paper experiment has proved the viability of the SKA site proposed by SA. (picture provided)

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Cape Town - Education standards remain critical to the rollout of science programmes and South African schools are not generally delivering the skills needed for high level fields of study an expert has said.

SA has to accelerate development of technical skills as the country is obliged to deliver its share of the Square Kilometre Array telescope that is to be built in the Northern Cape province.

The project aims to link thousands of radio telescopes to enable astronomers to look up to 13 billion years back in time to the early universe.

But the country has an education system that doesn't deliver graduates with the critical skills needed to speedily rollout the project.

"That remains a massive challenge... I know this issue all too well. I think we need to think much more creatively about how we deal with the increasing number of students coming in from high school and also the disparate quality of students," Professor Nithaya Chetty Group Executive of Astronomy at the National Research Foundation (NRF) told News24.

University entrance

One of the problems in science research is a relatively small number of students who graduate from school with mathematics and physical science as well as the percentage of those students who choose to study the science at university.

Although 70.2% students out of a total of 496 090 passed matric in 2011, only 24.3% obtained a university entrance.

Chetty, who holds a position at the University of Pretoria, said that while the university is seeing an increasing number of applications from matric students, their abilities are below par.

"You still have a very wide distribution of abilities. Even though the symbols of the students may be reasonable compared to only a few years ago, I'm not necessarily seeing a tremendous improvement in the mathematical skills which is what is actually essential for us to help deliver on the sorts of things that we want to."

He said that there should be accelerated programmes to teach technical skills to ensure that support staff for engineers on projects like the SKA were in place.

"I would like to see the universities of technology increasing in their capacity to be able to groom students in more technical, vocational work because that is absolutely essential for us to drive the manufacturing industry in South Africa.

"There's a growing need for skills that are very broad, not just purely academic and high-level skills," Chetty added.


Students, particularly those from disadvantaged institutions needed continued support in order to help them achieve in science fields and the National Astronomy and Space Science Programme (Nassp) based in the Western Cape, is under consideration for expansion to Gauteng.

"This is a very highly focused programme; it brings students from different universities to a single location to pursue a degree and Master's degree in astronomy.

"Even within here, we find that some graduates from historically black institutions have not coped well enough within this environment so we've now set up something called the extended Nassp programme where students from disadvantaged backgrounds have an additional year to go through," said Chetty.

He said that serious effort is required to ensure that students are supported in their study of science and schools are some way off of producing ideal university candidates.

"Additional efforts I'm afraid are needed and they will still be needed for quite some time. If you want to talk generally about the state of science education in South Africa, I would say we're very far away from really having a system that relies wholly on the output from high school and just simply assumes that those students coming in have the requisite skills to be able to cope at universities."

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Here is a YouTube video on the SKA:

Read more on:    nrf  |  ska  |  science

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