October 7, 2020

AIMS Master’s students equipped with Leadership, Knowledge & Skills for Science Communication & Public Engagement

Over recent decades, the calls for action from governments and scientific institutions for researchers and academics to undertake Science Communication and Public Engagement have been prominent around the world. In the African continent, it is profoundly obvious that without the advancement of the Science Communication and Public Engagement agenda, attempts at addressing developmental challenges and achieving science & technology innovations, are doomed to fail. For African researchers, it is without a doubt that Science Communication and Public Engagement actions, practices and drive are dynamic transformational tools for research advancement and motivation across critical parameters. However, very profound critical gaps exist between the policy imperatives from African governments and the delivery of effective, meaningful and impactful Science Communication practice by African researchers, academics and science communicators.

In order to address these critical gaps, AIMS House of Science in partnership with African Gong conducted a 3-day Africa Scientifique Workshop for the AIMS Master’s students. The workshop took place from the 28 to 30 September at AIMS South Africa in Muizenberg. It was part of the Africa Scientifique (AS) 3-phase programme – Leadership, Knowledge & Skills for Science Communication. Phase 1 – an Introductory of the programme – was delivered online on the 22 July 2020. The 3-day workshop is being followed by Phase 3 – a 4-month Post-Workshop mentoring, and project activities support that will take place from October 2020 to January 2021.

Over the three days, the Africa Scientifique Workshop was packed with thought-provoking, hands-on, informative and interactive sessions, ably facilitated by dynamic African Science Communication experts and practitioners, researchers and academics. The experts included Prof. Fanelwa Rachel Ajayi, Physical Chemist at the University of the Western Cape; Prof. Nokwanda (Nox) Makunga, Medical Plant Biotechnology expert at Stellenbosch University; Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala, President of African Gong: The Pan-African Network for the Popularization of Science & Technology and Science Communication in Africa; and Dr Rejoyce Gavhi-Molefe, Mathematical Scientist and Senior Manager of AIMS House of Science. Ms Karabo Makola, former House of Science intern, supported the logistics arrangements for the workshop. The workshop provided participants with an enabling environment to conceptualise and design their practical science communication and public engagement project activities and Post-AIMS career progression support plan, which they have since been undertaking after the workshop. As referred to earlier, its duration is four months.

The first day of the Africa Scientifique workshop consisted of four main sessions with broad and cross-cutting themes. The day began with introductory remarks from Prof Barry Green, Director of AIMS South Africa; Dr Simukai Utete, Academic Director of AIMS South Africa; Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala; and Dr Gavhi-Molefe. During their welcome remarks, all the speakers emphasised the need for mathematical scientists to be trained so that they are better equipped, skilled and confident in undertaking public engagement activities, initiatives and community outreach. The need for African institutions to work together in strategic partnerships to deliver African-centric, sustainable and inclusive Science Communication Capacity building programmes on the continent, was also accentuated.

The first session of Day 1 was on Research Time Management, work-life balance and successful research outcomes, facilitated by Prof. Ajayi. In this session, participants identified and explored the importance of time management in nurturing their research. In the second session, participants were provided with insight on Research Dissemination, public engagement and good practice in mathematics outreach activities, which was facilitated by Dr Rasekoala. The session focused on the challenges and opportunities within the South African National System of Innovation (NSI). It was particularly centered around the implementation of the good practice strategies highlighted in the NSI policy space, with regard to science communication, public engagement and scientific outreach with diverse audiences and public (s) in South Africa. The final session on the first day focused on Gender & Socio-Cultural Inclusion in science communication by Prof Ajayi. During the session, participants were challenged to address the perceptions, challenges and socio-cultural exclusion faced by African Women in Mathematical Sciences and how socio-cultural inclusion in science communication could be utilized as a tool to redress this. They were also engaged in exploring the empowering impact of socio-cultural inclusion in science communication, using the medium of their own South African local languages and Indigenous Knowledge Systems.

The second day of the workshop allowed participants to delve deeper into how they can leverage Science Communication and Public Engagement skills and opportunities. Participants also learned and were enabled to put into practice, how to advance their Science Communication skills and knowledge and strive for societal impact with regard to their mathematical research. The first session was on Leadership Skills for research, academia and future career progression facilitated by Prof Makunga. The session provided participants with contemporary insights into the changing world of academia and the need for the transferable skills that accrue from good practices in science communication and public engagement, which researchers and academics can then leverage to enhance their leadership and career progression in academia.

The second session of Day 2 was a panel discussion where participants had a unique opportunity to dialogue with key South African Government science policymakers, science communication practitioners and emerging researchers/role models. The topic for the panel discussion was Mentoring, science communication & progression pathways. The panellists who participated online and onsite included Mrs Koki Selepe, Deputy Director of Science Promotion at the national Government Department of Science and Innovation; Dr Beverley Damonse, the Group Executive of Science Engagement and Corporate Relations at the National Research Foundation of South Africa; Dr Rasekoala; Ms Zinhle Mthombothi, a Junior Researcher at the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis; and Mr David Attipoe, a Program Lead of AIMS ESMT Industry Immersion Program. The discussion was moderated by Dr Gavhi-Molefe who asked the panel members to share their perspectives on the primary challenges, opportunities and impacts of communicating Mathematical Sciences for socio-economic development in South Africa. The panel members were also asked to provide recommendations regarding the leveraging of Science Communication and Public Engagement skills, as well as opportunities to enhance the career pathways of researchers, academics and science communicators’ in Academia/research/industry, in South Africa, given the imperatives of the Transformation Agenda in the NSI. Young researchers such as Ms Mthombothi and Mr Attipoe were asked to share their experiences as role models in order to showcase how Science Communication and Public Engagement good practices have played a role in enhancing their career progression and visibility.

The last session of Day 2, focused on Presentation and Communication Skills, both written and oral, utilising diverse tools, platforms and engagements, and was facilitated by Dr Rasekoala. The session highlighted many of the transferable skills from science communication that are critical, whether participants wish to work in academia or in STEM-related industries. These included team-working skills for research collaborative relationships, partnerships and engagements; and empowering networking skills, enhancing visibility and research/academic/industry profiles and recognitions.

 “I learnt how to communicate scientific ideas [and] research to tourists, in industry, to the decision makers, general public…I also learnt to write proposals and make my presentation to be in one slide”, said one participant.

The second day of the workshop ended on high note: The Workshop participants showcased Science Communication in their Heritage and challenged stereotypes of mathematicians by taking on the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge. Click here to watch the video.

Day 3 was a highlight of the workshop as the participants had to put into practice what they had learnt from the Day 1 & 2 sessions. With the coaching, guidance and encouraging inputs and feedback from Drs Rasekoala and Gavhi-Molefe, the participants conceptualised, designed and presented their individual practical science communication and public engagement project activity frameworks. They will undertake their science communication projects together with their Post-AIMS career progression activities over four months, with the support from AIMS House of Science and African Gong. Two participants – Ms Grace Airenghe Ikhizama and Mr Tumelo Donald Sereo (pictured above) – demonstrated very outstanding improvements in terms of their engagement, enrollment, communication and presentation skills over the three days of the workshop. Thus, they walked away with the Inaugural Africa Scientifique Excellence Awards, which also include a cash prize. All the participants were awarded certificates. The announcement of Post Workshop Africa Scientifique project winners will take place at the end of January 2021. The first, second and third prizes will be R500, R300 and R200, respectively.

When asked How has participating in the Africa Scientifique workshop transformed you as a student/researcher with regard to Science Communication/Public Engagement within Mathematical Sciences? Some of the participants had this to say:

It has given me the capacity to fill the missing gaps needed to communicate effectively”.

“It has helped me to boost my confidence when communicating my ideas to the public”.

“It has transformed my mentality positively as a young researcher because after my research thesis, I am motivated now to go out to communicate my research work”.

“After taking the 3-day workshop, I believe I am better prepared for my masters defense and to communicate my work in the public.”

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