Education 'key' to SKA rollout

2012-07-10 11:20

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:

  • raath - 2012-07-10 11:28

    EVERYONE must get the opportunity - who knows how many great scientists have been lost through politics because they were not "disadvantaged" enough to get opportunities, yet still couldn't afford the tertiary education.

      henrileriche - 2012-07-10 13:16

      Many. The whole SKA project is for blacks. The few whites that are employed are just used as vehicles to "uplift". South Africa has the technical capacity, but it's a resource that is blatantly ignored, because the resource happens to be white expertise.

      aristar.aristary - 2012-07-11 09:10

      As a scientist, I applied for a job on the SKA a while ago and I am still waiting for a reply. So I guess I will just have to lift my white ass and export it to the land of Whites in Oz.

      raath - 2012-07-11 10:18

      Something I just thought about. Shouldn't "The skills necessary to operate and administer the array" be part of the qualification process to host it? What lies did the government feed the international science community to fool them into believing that SA had the skills?

  • raol.luyt - 2012-07-10 12:19

    Here we go again. Unless we rid ourselves of the entitlement frame of mind and realise that if we want the country to acctually advance we have to let go of the vote getting diatribe and explain to EVERYONE that it is ability and commiment that will get this country back on track. falling back onto the racist policies of the previous government is not going to help the country. People died on both side to reid ourselves of these ways. Let us now be real, if the ANC cannot deliver what they promised without destroying the country then some one esle must take over. Education is the basis of growth not votes. Send out the books and educate all with NO free rides.

  • Ze Don - 2012-07-10 12:19

    Let me get this straight... We've got lawyers who can't read or wright (article on Sunday) and now we've got engineers who can't do maths or science? What a wonderful education system we've got... NOT!

      johan.prins3 - 2012-07-10 15:59

      It is even worse: We have theoretical physicists world-wide, who do not understand simple elementary physics: Examples: 1. They do not understand why charges form dipole layers, and how this action explains superconduction. 2. They do not realise that an electron-wave, which must move with a speed v less than light speed must have rest-mass energy within the reference frame moving with the wave, and that therefore a Higgs boson is not required to explain mass. 3. They do not realise that there cannot be an electric-field energy around a solitary charge; even though Coulomb's law requires at least two charges to establish a force. 4. They do not realise that a solitary electron moving around a circle (even when held there by a proton) does not constitute an electric-current which causes a magnetic moment. 5. They do not realise that an atomic electron around a nucleus has NO momentum and no kinretic-energy. I will surely not advise any bright student anywhere in the world to study physics. BTW I have been a professor in physics which trained students up to obtaining PhD's. I have a DSc. Not just South Africa, the whole world is in a mess when it comes to science; especially physics.

      aristar.aristary - 2012-07-11 09:24

      @ johan.prins3: And I understood all of that and I haven't studdied science in many years but I doubt whether any Grade 12 students could understand one word of what you have said. Maybe that should be the requirement for becoming a functional scientist, engineer or astronomer.

  • ken.sudding - 2012-07-10 22:52

    The education authorities in this country are unable to even coordinate provision of books to schools, which gives a clear indication of the downward spiral of education system in general.\r\nFurthermore, if Duncan believes, or anyone else, that astronomers can \look back\ billions of years, then the education system has failed them also.Perhaps you used an incorrect source of information.

      aristar.aristary - 2012-07-11 09:28

      The education authorities in South Africa could not organise the proverbial pissup in a brewery so how do they manage to get their jobs? Eish "My cousin she is the minister."

  • aristar.aristary - 2012-07-11 09:09

    Unfortunately the current education system in South Africa does not encourage a passion for science. The current learners are not taught enough of the basic skills of advanced mathematics to be able to get jobs above digging holes and mixing cement.

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