Salt adds flavour to Sutherland
Sutherland - The Southern African Larger Telescope (Salt) has brought more than astronomy to the depressed town of Sutherland in the Northern Cape Province; it's had an impact in the community.
"It's made a huge difference. I've been teaching here for 15 years and for the last 11 years Salt has sponsored trips to the Scifest. In fact, last year they took two schools," Hoërskool Sutherland science teacher Erasmus Brand told News24.
He said that despite the fact that not too many learners take maths and physical science, the introduction of Salt has had the implication that more learners are considering the subjects, but the school was hamstrung by the lack of transport and enough facilities to accommodate learners from outside the immediate area.
"Even though the NRF (National Research Foundation) upgraded the hostel, there's not enough accommodation for outside learners."
The high school is the only one in the town and typically, learners often have to cope with high levels of adult alcoholism and domestic violence in the community. This often has negative implications for their schoolwork.
To alleviate some of the perceptions around science, the Cape Town Science Centre (formerly the MTN Science Centre) has set up a satellite station at the school where the community will be exposed to science and workshops at both the high school and two primary schools in the area will be conducted.
"I'm going to study chemical engineering after school," said grade 11 learner Eustice Ballie.
"After school I'd like to study electrical engineering - I just love it," said Michael du Preez, sitting among displays in the science classroom.
Jean Barnado said that he would like to focus on automobile engineering because he loves cars, but was cautious about new technology in the field.
"It will take a long time to change from petrol powered cars because it's still so popular. A new concept will take time to create the change," said the grade 11 learner.
Brand said that it was difficult to get learners to think differently about science but that there was progress.
"It's a mind shift to get these kids to understand that maths and science isn't difficult."
The town of Sutherland has also seen something of a tourism boom since the arrival of Salt.
"The town gets about 1 000 visitors per month, but there are only about 300 beds, so it's been good for Sutherland," Salt collateral benefit manager Kevin Govender told News24.
Govender spends a large percentage of his time in Sutherland and the SAAO is building a community science and technology centre which has been funded by the department of science and technology at a cost of about R1.5m.
"We have a play area for the kids, so that young parents can do their CVs in a safe environment. There'll be an outdoor screen, and we've insisted that the centre is an alcohol-free zone," said Govender.
Locals have also been trained to perform basic maintenance tasks on the telescopes and tourists are encouraged to visit the town.
"We don't want people to only come and see the telescope, we want them to see the town," Govender said.
- Follow Duncan on Twitter