Sheffield scientists help shape South African curriculum

Scientists at the University of Sheffield have been actively involved in developing environmental education in South Africa as part of a unique outreach project.

The Iimbovane (which means "ants" in the local language isiXhosa) project has helped introduce biodiversity to the curriculum of 15 and 16 year-old secondary school students in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. It has also extended what is already known within the scientific community about the Province's ant population.

Ants are an important group of insects in the South African ecosystem and are useful indicators of changes in the landscape and climate. Alongside colleagues at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, the team from the University's Department of Animal and Plant Sciences has played a vital role in developing the project and providing expertise to teachers and pupils in 13 schools in the Western Cape.

The project has proved so successful that the Western Cape Education Department, with support from the Centre for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University, now hopes to expand the project to all 360 secondary schools in the Province.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield have helped prepare teachers for the implementation of the Iimbovane project in their schools, while assisting them to apply the new South African National Curriculum Statement. In its first three years the project has trained 32 teachers, nine curriculum advisors and reached over 3,000 students.

School children involved in the project work together with ecologists in the field and classroom to monitor ant diversity in natural and modified landscapes and investigate how ant groupings change between places and over time. Using simple techniques they collect and analyse data, experiencing science in a research environment, while remaining curriculum focused. It is hoped that the programme, which has provided young people with knowledge of the country's environment and the skills and resources to continue the work in the future, will encourage them to view science as a potential career option and take an interest in conservation.

The Sheffield team has also worked closely with the scientific data collected throughout the project and developed reference collections and keys for ant identification. At least 158 ant species have been identified so far and this data has been used to monitor and examine ant populations and how they change in time and space, providing a valuable contribution to society's understanding of environmental conservation in South Africa.

The first phase of the ten-year programme was funded by Defra's Darwin Initiative which draws on the wealth of biodiversity expertise within the UK to help protect and enhance biodiversity around the world. Local partners will now carry this work forward, strengthening partnerships with those schools already involved and expanding the project to other schools in the Province.

Professor Kevin Gaston, from the University's Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and the Sheffield scientist who led the project, said: "The Iimbovane project has been a huge success. It has empowered a new generation of budding scientists, whilst simultaneously helping to develop capacity amongst South African teachers."

Professor Steven Chown, Director of the Centre for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University, said: "The new phase of the project will strengthen relationships with the existing schools, and, by means of an exciting phased roll-out, will involve additional schools at a variety of levels. The Centre for Invasion Biology will continue to underwrite the new phase and the Iimbovane project will remain the key community interaction undertaken."

Franco Eagleton a pupil at Sentraal High School, Beaufort West and one of the students involved in the project, said: "I loved the Iimbovane project because we learnt many important facts about a form of life which we destroy and trample without a second thought. It opened my eyes and jolted my interest in science as a profession."

Notes for Editors: This project has been funded by Defra's Darwin Initiative - which draws on the wealth of biodiversity expertise within the UK to help protect and enhance biodiversity around the world. Since its launch in 1992, the Darwin Initiative has committed over £60million to 464 projects in more than 100 countries.

For further information please contact: Lindsey Bird, Media Relations Manager, on 0114 2225338 or email l.bird@sheffield.ac.uk