Pretoria - In deep concentration and with faces showing intense curiosity, pupils from various high schools in Mamelodi listened carefully as they were treated to a science lesson by American YouTube sensation Dr Tyler DeWitt.
The experience intrigued them and got them asking questions at the Mae Jemison Science Corner, at the University of Pretoria on Wednesday.
DeWitt is a scientist, a creator and has a YouTube following of 500 000 people - teachers and students across the world who access his science lessons every day.
He is in the country, courtesy of the United States Mission to South Africa and his aim is to inspire high school pupils to learn new ways of asking questions and being creative in science.
The 35-year-old scientist’s target was pupils aged 12 to 18 years, said project director Amy Christianson.
“We brought this programme to Mamelodi to give high school students an opportunity to look at new ways of learning and teaching science.
“And our speaker is explaining and playing with them, teaching them how to ask new questions,” she said.
It was exciting to watch the youngsters showing their curiosity and eagerness to learn, she said.
“They are actually taking time out of their day to come to this spot, after a tiring school day and to do science,” she said.
The lessons were held in the afternoon for 19 of the township’s young people, and, Christianson said, DeWitthad been brought to the country to fill a gap identified among young people, and a hunger for educational science and technology.
“We thought it would be awesome to work with the students, and with teachers to give them different ways of teaching. And since DeWitt has been so popular in the US for creating new ways to get students to think and be creative with science, we knew he would be a hit here too,” she said.
During his lesson, DeWitt lit a fire and told the pupils a story: “I want to use this fire to illustrate what I want to talk to you about: think about our ancestors sitting around a fire late at night, with no electronics or electricity and looking through the fire.
“Our ancestors saw something that interested them through the fire and started asking questions, which is why human beings are different from other animals; we wonder and ask questions,” he said.
With the observation of fire and questions asked as they watched the flames, he said, our ancestors became scientists in their own right and were smart.
He told the pupils to always ask questions if they were to learn further.
Siphosethu Makhambeni, a Grade 10 pupil from Bona Lesedi Secondary School, said he was interested in science, and was intrigued by the questions he formulated when DeWitt was teaching them.
He and the others said they had learnt a lot from the scientist’s curricula and realised how it fostered critical thinking, problem solving, and authentic understanding.
DeWitt’s visit to the country started on October 10, and his programme includes holding a series of workshops with high school teachers and students in Joburg, Bloemfontein, Pretoria, and Cape Town.
His TED Talk on YouTube, on making science fun, has been viewed more than 1million times, and he is lauded as a powerful and engaging young speaker.
His hosts said he was passionate about making science relevant and understandable through story telling. “He hopes to inspire more young people to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering, and maths,” the Mission said, adding that he had developed curricula and teaching methods to foster critical thinking, problem solving and authentic understanding.
“He is currently writing a book on the beauty and elegance of scientific research; has a PhD in microbiology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he served as a prestigious National Science Foundation Fellow,” the US Mission said.
In the week he is in the country DeWitt will be hosted at American spaces designed to inspire knowledge, dialogue, and collaboration among diverse communities. He has been to five American spaces, among them Ga-Rankuwa and Joburg, and will be in Cape Town today. His Mamelodi audience said they were excited at the opportunity to interact with DeWitt and had learnt a lot.
Dineo Khoza said she was not a science pupil but attending the lesson had sparked her interest in the subject.
“We have learnt how to look at science from another angle,” the Grade 10 pupil from Gatang Secondary said.