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Apr 06, 2012

Wits hopes ‘science stadium’ will set stage for new science champions

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University of the Witwatersrand head of the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences Professor Kevin Balkwill discusses the university's new science stadium. Camerawork: Nicholas Boyd. Editing: Darlene Creamer.
Construction|Engineering|Africa|Education|Industrial|PROJECT|Africa|Equipment|Screen|Environmental|Kevin Balkwill|Melanie Keartland
Construction|Engineering|Africa|Education|Industrial|PROJECT|Africa|Equipment|Screen|Environmental|
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Tertiary capacity for engineering, science and mathematics students has been boosted through the construction of the University of the Witwatersrand’s science stadium, which boasts a 435-seat lecture auditorium, two 330-seat lecture auditoria, and two 240-seat lecture auditoria, all equipped with cameras and modern equipment, says capital campaign manager in the development and fundraising office at the university Melanie Keartland.

The facility also has a number of different laboratories, specifically chemistry (376 seats), biology (300 seats) and physics (408 seats), and holds 23 tutorial rooms, some sponsored by industrial companies, seating between 30 and 50 students each. The projected occupancy of the tutorial rooms and lecture auditoria will be 95%, she adds.

“This facility is specifically for first-year engineering, health sciences and science, but it is also focused on liberating space in the existing discipline-specific buildings for research and postgraduate studies, and providing the postgraduate scientists of the future,” she says.

The university has about 3 200 first-year sciences students, which is a significant portion of its total 30 000 student complement, and aims to increase this number to 5 000, making the development of the facility a priority.

“We are a research institution and must ensure that we have postgraduate students, specifically master’s and PhD students, to conduct primary research.”

Lectures are recorded as podcasts and there are cameras above the lecturers to enable them to project demonstrations, experiments and calculations onto a big screen, so that all the students can participate. Further, the lecture halls also have equipment that enables lecturers to use input from students, in the form of multiple-choice feedback, to ascertain whether students have grasped key concepts.

“We now have space in the physics and chemistry buildings for laboratories for postgraduates. We expect to have more postgraduates over the next few years. Not only are we dealing with the quantity issue, but because we have consolidated our teaching, we are also dealing with the quality of graduates. “We are also starting to refur- bish the discipline-specific build- ings to make additional space for more postgraduate laboratories,” she details.

The new science stadium enables more effective teaching of undergraduates, which means that undergraduates are better prepared for postgraduate studies, says University of the Witwatersrand head of the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences Professor Kevin Balkwill.

“We attract a number of postgraduate students from Africa and across disciplines but the bulk of our postgraduates come from our own students,” he notes.

“The laboratories in the science stadium are specifically for under- graduates and are much more spacious than our previous laboratories.”

There is a significant interlock between the university’s sciences and engineering disciplines, says Keartland, adding that the university aims to consolidate its science libraries and open a single, modern library near the stadium.

Balkwill cites the numbers of natural sciences students, noting that while mathematics has a flat growth rate for the year, geo- logical sciences have enrolled 140 students, at least double their usual 60 complement.

“We have 530 first-year students in the introductory life sciences course who will enter into the fields of anatomy, physiology, microbiology, genetics, biochemistry, plant sciences, zoology, and environmental science, ecology and conservation. “We have had to do a reshuffle of first-year health sciences practical classes because we could not cope with the numbers.

“One of the former first-year laboratories has already gone to molecular and cell biology, because, instead of having 119 second-year students, as they did last year, they have 190 this year. On the postgraduate side, one of the former first-year labs will be used to house postgraduate students of three research groups,” he emphasises.

“We now have space to accommodate postgraduate students and will need to increase our staff,” he adds.

“Further, we are emphasising research readiness in our undergraduate teaching. The science stadium facilitates better first-year teaching and [should improve] pass rates, which, in turn, leads to better development of high-level skills in more second- and third-year students. This will mean that students graduating with degrees will be better prepared for undertaking research within their postgraduate degrees,” he says.

“It is not just the skills but the ethos that university education creates. People who have gone through university, for example engineers, are more likely to become entrepreneurs, to develop new technologies, new businesses, innovation and research and development,” says Keartland.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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