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Two stand-out models of physics education and outreach in South Africa

19 February 2015
One model aims to address socioeconomic disparities; the other brings students and distinguished regional and international lecturers together for an advanced, intense training program.

Physics education got its chance on center stage at the 6th annual Inter-Continental Advanced Materials and Photonics Summer School (I-CAMP), held 15–29 June 2014. South Africa hosted this, the first I-CAMP on the continent; previous host locations included Beijing, China; Boulder, Colorado; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Cambridge, UK; and Sydney, Australia.

Cultural excursions are encouraged in the Inter-Continental Advanced Materials and Photonics Summer School (I-CAMP). The students shown here hiked to the top of the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted I-CAMP in 2014.

Cultural excursions are encouraged in the Inter-Continental Advanced Materials and Photonics Summer School (I-CAMP). The students shown here hiked to the top of the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted I-CAMP in 2014.

The occasion provided an opportunity for us (the three authors) and the more than 40 other graduate students and postdocs, hailing from every corner of the world to meet, share research, learn from experts in the field, and immerse ourselves in the host culture. Topology in soft matter and optics was the main topic of the “summer” school—though, technically, June marks the beginning of winter in South Africa. Most of the experts came from energy, materials science, optics, photonics, biophysics, nanoscience, and related fields.

Education as a socioeconomic equalizer

Time was dedicated to discussions of education and outreach. In South Africa two education models stand out: initiatives that seek to narrow socioeconomic disparities and the pioneering African Institute of Mathematical Sciences, which prepares Africans across the continent for graduate education and technical careers.

The first example of the socioeconomic initiative is the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Centre for Science Access, which allows students from disadvantaged backgrounds to obtain science and math degrees over an extended period. The initiative seeks to address the disparity in the quality of high school education that still exists in the country.

Another example is the Northern Cape Maths and Science Educator Development Programme, a joint initiative of UKZN, the Northern Cape Department of Education, and BHP Billiton, a multinational oil and mining company. The program aims to improve teachers’ competence and confidence in their ability to educate high school seniors. A bachelor of education degree is required to teach professionally in South Africa. However, because there’s a shortage of trained math and science educators, many South African teachers are either underqualified or overwhelmed.

Even with competent teachers, many schools lack access to basic learning materials. With the help of online volunteers, Cape Town-based nonprofit Siyavula Education has produced and delivered to the South African Department of Basic Education open-copyright textbooks aligned with the country’s curriculum. Founder and director Mark Horner is a nuclear physicist who first launched the Free High School Science Text project, the genesis for Siyavula, in 2002. One of us (Marais) has volunteered for these three initiatives.

AIMS for development

The African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) is an increasingly popular option at the postgraduate level. The first of now six centers on the continent was established in Muizenberg (near Cape Town) in 2003 by South African native and mathematical physicist Neil Turok, now director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada. The mission of each AIMS center is to train 50 post-baccalaureate students in physics, mathematics, and computer science for a period of 10 months.

One of us (Utuje) attended AIMS from 2010 to 2011 and found the environment to be unique. Lecturers come from all over the world to teach for three weeks at AIMS; the lectures and exams are intense and the syllabi are high-level. Also, students and lecturers live and dine in the same space to allow for the maximum possible contact time.

By design, some of the AIMS workshops feature local researchers and students. Also, most AIMS research projects focus on finding solutions to local community problems. Our final two days at I-CAMP were spent on the AIMS campus in Muizenberg. The center’s administrators invited us to apply for opportunities to lecture or tutor at AIMS; meanwhile, AIMS students took the opportunity to interact with the I-CAMP lecturers and discuss opportunities for pursuing their graduate degrees abroad.


Initiatives like AIMS and I-CAMP provide invaluable opportunities for African students to interact with and learn from regional and international experts. Another such initiative aims to boldly take the continent where it has never gone before. Launched by the South African nonprofit Foundation for Space Development, the Africa2Moon mission will involve public lectures and scientific workshops that will culminate, eventually, with the landing of a probe on the Moon. According to the project website, Africa2Moon is “a badly needed project to encourage more scholars into science; to provide a world class project that [African] graduates can work on ‘at home’; and to bring investment, opportunities and skills training to Africa.”

No doubt, strengthening South Africa’s physics education will have a positive impact on the success of this and other audacious missions.

Adriana MaraisAdriana Marais, of South Africa, is near completion of her PhD degree in the quantum research group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Her dissertation is on quantum effects in photosynthesis.

Kazage J. Christophe UtujeKazage J. Christophe Utuje, of Rwanda, is a PhD student in the soft-condensed-matter program at Syracuse University in New York. He is currently working on building a continuum model for a spreading cell layer that couples elastic deformations to myosin based-cell activity.

Amirhossein SajadiAmirhossein Sajadi, of Iran, is a PhD candidate in system and control engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. His research involves the control, optimization, and management of stochastic and nonlinear large-scale systems, including renewable-energy and power systems. South Africa was the third consecutive I-CAMP he attended.

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