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Photo of Khotso Mokhele Special Guest -- Khotso Mokhele

While on "science safari" in South Africa, Alan Alda took time out from a busy filming schedule to interview Khotso Mokhele, President of the Foundation for Research Development. As head of South Africa's funding agency for science, engineering and technology, Khotso is deeply committed to uplifting disadvantaged communities in South Africa. After the Scientific American Frontiers Special Science Safari aired, Khotso answered viewers' questions as part of an Ask the Scientists panel. Here are viewers' questions and his answers:

QWhat do you think are the biggest challenges facing science education in the "new" South Africa?

There is need to substantially increase the number of students at all levels who take up the study of science. Far too many currently opt out of the sciences as soon as the system allows. It is also important to change the public perception on the role science plays in socio-economic development and the improvement of the quality of life.

To achieve the above goals there will be need for a major development in the infrastructure, in the quality of teacher education, as well as the science curriculum. The Department of Education is laying the foundation for the transformation that is envisaged to be necessary to meet the challenge of increased student participation in the sciences. The Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology is currently developing a programme which will address the issue of public perception of science.

QAs a high school science teacher, I'm interested to hear about the differences and/or similarities you may have noticed between science education in the US and South Africa.

One thing the two systems have in common is the tendency for students to opt out of the sciences as soon as they are able to. With respect to how programmes are organised it is important to note that 1996 was the first year in which South Africa moved in the direction of a single system of education. There will therefore be systems that were previously advantaged and would have had science education programmes that were comparable with good programmes in the US. But at the same time there are situations where students go through all of high school science without the experience of practical work.

Another point is that even though there is only one public examination at the end of the high school the system tends to be prescriptive thus not encouraging teacher innovation. I believe there are a number of American teachers who have exploited the flexibility of the system to engage in curriculum reform. This is in stark contrast to the South African situation where there is up to now still strong central control of the syllabus. The new system that is evolving is building much more flexibility into the responsibility for curriculum reform.

QWe're always hearing that certain countries, especially Japan, seem to excel at teaching students science. As you work to create a new society in which all students have equal access to math and science education, are there any particular programs in any specific countries you are seeking to emulate?

The particular circumstances of South Africa create what we believe are unique problems in science education. This implies that the model of science education that we plan to develop should address these unique problems. We thus intend to learn from the best practices around the world drawing on these to develop what we believe our science education needs. As an example the new curriculum that is being developed will be an outcomes based model in which the learning programme will be organised into learning areas that all contribute to attainment of predetermined essential outcomes. Of course the apartheid regime permeated all aspects of South African life and we are rebuilding our society.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.