special Science survey on education

robin at ruchem.ru.ac.za robin at ruchem.ru.ac.za
Fri Jan 7 16:04:33 EST 1994

I write from South Africa. The answers to your questions follow. Please
note that these are my personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect
the policy or opinions of my Faculty or of the University.
1)There has been a growing trend toward rote learning of science coupled
with a downgrading in the quality of teaching at pre-university level due
to sociological and financial pressures. Thus students arrive at their
first lab with a notion of what a pipette looks like but they have never
handled one. They have drawn a pipette in their science books using a 
stencil. Several lab sessions are required to familarise them with th 
real thing. I must point out that this problem is not confined to the
desperately inadequate education our black students present with: many
white students are in the same boat. I must also say that for greater
than 90% of these students, the first few lab sessions are enough for
them to catch up and by the end of freshman year the problem has largely
2)We have found that recruitment into Chemistry is improved by the possibility
of flexibility in the final year of BS i.e. the student can look forward
to majoring in Chem+Biochem, Chem+BioTech, and indeed Chem+x where x can
be a number of different disciplines. Computer Science is one. Flexibility
is the name of the game here: but we are rigid in our undergraduate credit
requirements. For example, no student qualifies in Chem without Maths 1.
3)The endemic problem (apart from the usual desire of u/g students to spend
more time on recreational pursuits than working) is inability to cope with
maths. For this we have to look to the revision of the school system.
Any problem demanding mathematical dexterity immediately results in the
distribution of marks aquiring two distribution curves, rather than the
one normal curve one gets when one asks a question requiring pure memory
4)I am not really qualified to speak for other Depts but certainly for
Maths and Physics the problems described above are the same.
5)An interesting question, given the current political state of affairs.
I would say that any black student graduating BS Chemistry has a golden
future, right now, and the students are aware of this. Affirmative action
is all the rage. On the other hand, a white male with a BS has a very poor
job prospect. Thus the negative impact of the outside changes affect our
white students more than they do our black ones.. All the same, there are
large companies which offer bursaries and the bursars are guaranteed jobs
so if you are really good, you will make it. It is the man/woman who gets
50% who will find it hard to persuade the employer, regardless of ethnicity.
6)Exciting developments outside Rhodes: well, what can I say! My country
is moving from apartheid to democracy and no one knows what the future
will hold. We are all very optimistic here and look forward to a new SA
which to be sure will have its shortcomings and problems but at least and
at last we'll not be divided by our skin colour.
7)Well, the emphasis now is on the chemistry which we can do well and 
which is relevant. Fortunately our mineral wealth requires that we have
extensive expertise in gold and pgm chemistry, as well as in the base
metals; and as we become independent of overseas holding companies the 
demand for expertise will grow. Added to this basic need we have a
special requirement for experts in water chemistry given that SA is a 
country which is chronically short of water and needs to conserve and re-
cycle; while our minig industries use water by the Gigagallon. We also
have a traditional pharmacopaeia which only now is being studied using
modern chemical techniques. I am involved myself in both pgm chemistry
and water chemistry and would welcome inquiries.

I hope this has helped your survey!

Robin English
Dept Chemistry
Rhodes University
Box 94
Grahamstown 6140
South Africa
email: robin at ruchem.ru.ac
email: robin at ruchem.ru.ac.za

More information about the Bioforum mailing list