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Acornhoek Physics Summer School is Accelerating Space Education in South Africa

ACORNHOEK Physics Summer School is a summer school that is hosted every year to improve understanding of Physics and Mathematics. The summer school started in 2016, with the first classes being held at Magwagwaza high school, South Africa, from December 5 to 15, 2016 and January 2 to 6, 2017.

Since then, the summer school has been taking place every year during December and January holidays. During the summer school, classes are held on Physics, Mathematics, while career guidance is provided and other fun activities are involved.

Grade 11 students are taught Grade 12 Maths and science, and every year, alumni of the school come back to support the next batch. This summer school was founded by Sibusiso Mdhluli a current student of the University of Northwest & Cape Town and Shepherd Mpolwane a student of the University of Limpopo.

This year’s summer school will be held from 7 to 18 December 2020. Due to Covid-19, it will combine e-learning with physical learning i.e. students will learn from home for some days and learn at the venue on other days. A new course in Astronomy and Programming (Python) has been added, to provide early exposure to students to skills which are fast becoming essential for the 4th industrial revolution.

Fundraising of about R100,000 ($6,040) is needed to cover the purchase of 21 tablets (20 for students and 1 for teaching) which will be used for e-learning, data bundles, transport, meals during physical lessons, stationery, pay tutors and other safety product which may be needed for Covid-19.

In this interview, Sibusiso talks about the growth and impact of the summer school since inception and the present challenges faced.

Can you tell us about yourself, interests and your background?

My name is Sibusiso Mdhluli and I am based in South Africa. I am currently finishing my Master’s in Astrophysics at the University of the Western Cape. My interest is more into Machine Learning which is the area of Artificial Intelligence and this is part of the work I’ve been doing for my Masters. My other interest involves looking at ways of improving the education system in rural areas.

What was the inspiration behind Acornhoek Physics Summer School?

The summer school started when I noticed that many students where I come from are having challenges in terms of Physics and Maths. Since it’s more like a remote area, we don’t have many industrial materials to bring motivation to the students so they can see the need to do Science and Maths. After my friend, Shephard Mpulwane, and I finished our undergraduate (studies) in 2015, I suggested that we start a summer school in 2016 where we get students in grade 11 and teach them grade 12 physics and Maths during December holidays.

This also came from my own experience. When I finished my grade 11, I decided to spend my December time studying grade 12 physics and mathematics, and I realised how much it helped me. By the time I started my grade 12, I was almost ahead of all the other students and was part of the top students. When I saw how much it worked for me, I suggested to my friend, that we can follow the same pattern for summer school. And since then we have never looked back.

Every year we train grade 11 students for three weeks in December, give them career guidance and this year, we decided to integrate Astronomy into the curriculum. This will make them the first high school students in the country to study Astronomy.

What is the mission and vision of the Summer school?

The mission of the Summer school is to help students from rural areas to perform better in Maths and Science and expose them to various career opportunities.

How has been the program so far, and how many students have benefited in this impactful program?

So far, this is the number of students we have worked with:

2016 – 5

2017 – 17

2018 – 8

2019 – 22 

For this year, we plan to host 20 students.

You’re a student set on a great mission to impact lives, how have you been able to fund the program so far?

When we started in 2016, the students were contributing something minimal to sustain the program. For the first time last year, we got funding from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of the Western Cape, which was approved by Prof Roy Maartens. We also got another funding from IDIA – Inter-University Institute for Data-Intensive Astronomy, University of the Western Cape, which was approved by Prof Carolina Odman. Friends and colleagues also came through for us for last year’s summer school, and we were able to raise over R30 000, which we used to fund last year summer school.

How has Covid-19 affected the Summer School?

Since the pandemic started this year, we were not sure if we will be able to hold the summer school. What we finally decided on is to change the mode of the summer school so as to minimize social contacts between students and tutors and abide by the Covid-19 social distancing rules. 

The plan is that the summer school will be a mixture of online and onsite classes. To make this possible, we have to provide students with tablets. Presently, we are trying to raise funding of about R100,000 ($6,040) to acquire the necessary materials needed for them to attend the training online.

The alumni of the Summer School, what have they grown to become. Highlight notable success stories of the alumni?

Almost all of our alumni are at various levels in universities pursuing different degrees. Some of our first set of students will be finishing their undergraduate degrees this year. The network is developed by giving the alumni the chance to come back and tutor at the Summer School. 

Where do you see the Summer School in 5 or 10 years to come?

We would like to train more students intensively, accommodate them for that period of three weeks; since for now they attend and leave the same day. We would like to be able to provide bursaries for university studies to all the students who participated in the summer school. We also look forward to extending this project to other places in the country because we have seen the great impact it has created in this location. 

(SOURCE: AFRICANEWS.SPACE)

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