By Colleen Dardagan

Integrating the knowledge of indigenous Zulu medicinal plants into the teaching of chemistry is under investigation by Fulbright scholar Deshi Moodley, now a science education lecturer at the faculty of education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Moodley's study, which she says will take three years, integrates indigenous knowledge of Zulu medicinal plants into the teaching of school-level chemistry and was discussed during the Southern African Association for Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education annual meeting on the Edgewood campus last month.

Focusing on the Waterberry (sygizium cordatum) or uMdoni tree, as it is known in Zulu, Moodley aims to establish the effectiveness of adopting a new strategy in the teaching of chemistry to increase interest in a subject some schoolchildren consider "foreign" in its present format.

Twenty Zulu-speaking chemistry students at the School of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education are participating in the study, which is in its preliminary stages.

"I am using the uMdoni tree as it has a lot of cultural relevance. The leaves and bark are used by traditional healers to treat wounds and infections - it has anti-bacterial properties," she said.

Moodley said the research was being done because 90 percent of the African population relied on traditional medicine and children studying science in African countries performed badly, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss).

"A number of studies have revealed that pupils from indigenous backgrounds have shown disinterest in conventional schooling because it was believed to be culturally foreign to them, and this could be one factor that has contributed to the low scores attained by South African pupils in Timss.

"The integration of indigenous African knowledge of plants in the FET (Further Education and Training) syllabus will allow pupils to relate to the subject's science content more readily as they have relevant experiences of the everyday lives of their communities," she said.

"I believe research of this nature will address some of the challenges teachers responsible for chemistry education at schools encounter.

"Many science teachers at schools do not know how to tackle indigenous knowledge in the teaching of chemistry, so they focus on textbook-bound information, which is generally based on Western modern science. There is a lot not only in the chemistry of indigenous plants but also about pupils' cultural beliefs of plants that school science teachers could address," said Moodley.