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Vol. 29 No. 4
July-August 2007

The Project Place | Information about new, current, and complete IUPAC projects and related initiatives
See also

Young Ambassadors for Chemistry in Grahamstown, South Africa

Student reporters roved the square in Grahamstown and interviewed the public.
The last of the Young Ambassadors for Chemistry (YAC) events was held 19–23 March 2007 in Grahamstown, South Africa, completing a five-year, five-nation, three-continent project intended to train teachers to help students communicate the benefits of chemistry. This last leg of the YAC series was carried out during the SASOL Science Festival (21–27 March), the largest science festival in Southern Africa.

The SASOL SciFest, which attracted around 45 000 people over the week, proved to be the ideal environment for a YAC event. Brian Wilmot, SciFest director, was instrumental in allowing YAC to be part of the festivities. The Science Festival is an annual event, largely sponsored by the South African oil company SASOL with support of many other firms.

YAC is a partnership between the Public Understanding of Chemistry subcommittee of IUPAC’s Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE) and the Science Across the World (SAW) Network created to facilitate the flow of ideas between chemistry and society using young people as mediators. This fifth YAC event built upon the successes of those held earlier in Taipei, Taiwan; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Krasnoyarsk, Russia; and Gwangju, Korea.

Students built DNA models piece by piece.
A typical YAC event encompasses four days of workshops and preparation with educators, followed by a one-day public event where students—the Young Ambassadors for Chemistry—share their enthusiasm and interest with passers-by. The first stage of the project was the workshop series, held 19–22 March, which is geared towards educators. During these workshops, educators are guided in the use of suitable materials and activities to promote public awareness of chemistry. Ken Ngcoza, Science Education Lecturer at the Science department, Faculty of Education of Rhodes University, hosted the course. “We selected educators from public schools in and around Grahamstown to partake in this workshop series,” said Ngcoza.

The group included 24 teachers from 10 schools from townships around the region, all graduates from Rhodes University. The teachers came sheepishly to meet the YAC organizers and start the week of workshops.

The week started with official opening speeches by Brian Wilmot (director SciFest), George Euvrard (dean of the Faculty of Education at Rhodes University), Ken Ngcoza, and finally Erica Steenberg, a member of the CCE from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who was the local YAC event contact, organizer, and “troubleshooter.”

The goals of the workshops, said Steenberg, were to “show educators productive ways to teach chemistry, build models, prepare chemistry-related advertisements and commercials, set up partnerships in schools, talk about genetics, communicate about chemistry and chemical products, and plan activities for learners.”

The third day of training, which involved computer work, proved enlightening for the organizers and participants. In a survey of the group the night before, organizers had asked how many of the participants were happy to work on computers and found that only 6 out of 22 were confident. The workshop was rearranged so that each of the newcomers to internet research would be sitting with an experienced colleague. It turned out that the teachers were being very modest about their abilities and by the end of the morning organizers had created e-mail addresses for those who didn’t have one and signed everyone up to the Science Across the World program. This was an impressive result given the absence of internet facilities in these teachers’ schools. Thankfully, Ngcoza offered to help the teachers remain connected via the university facilities.

In the afternoon of the third day, participants returned to the classroom to practice the tasks that their students would be undertaking as part of the YAC day in central Grahamstown. First, they built a three-meter model of DNA from liquorice and jelly tots (from the SAW resource Talking about Genetics). Second, they designed, prepared, and presented a line of South African cosmetics, including bath salts, hair gel (for black curly hair), and shampoo (from the SAW resource Chemistry in Our Lives).

The teachers’ presentations were excellent, but one teacher, named Shakes, stood out and won the BioRad DNA extraction (Genes-in-a-Bottle) kit. His presentation was so dramatic and energetic that he was an easy choice. The group prize was well-fought too, but the traditional award of a piece of Lida Schoen’s Dutch cheese was actually shared by everyone in the group.

On the last day before the public event, the organizers were invited to visit a number of schools. With Ngcoza and Steenberg as guides, they visited Victoria High School for Girls (close to Rhodes University in Grahamstown), where they observed a lively quiz competition during a lesson on electricity, Ntsika school, where a senior biology lesson was taking place, and C.M. Vellem School (6–15 year olds), where they met the head teacher. The last two of these schools are located in the nearby township called Joza.

Visiting the schools gave the organizers a reality check. For all they were presenting about YACs, the schools in the township have large classes to deal with, few resources, and little in the way of information and communication technology. However, it proved very motivating to see the energy in the schools and the enthusiasm of the teachers and students.

In the afternoon, the teachers completed the final preparations for the YAC day. This involved preparing the DNA kits, the cosmetics workshops, as well as the tasks for the roving reporters and the bags of gifts from our sponsors for the students. By now, the teachers knew exactly what to do during the public YAC event.

At the end of the afternoon organizers carried out a feedback session. The information from the teachers was insightful and very helpful. One of the main issues concerned the logistics of becoming involved in an internet-based program without any internet access. The last workshop session ended with certificates of recognition for all participants and a lot of kissing and hugging.

On YAC day, Friday 23 March, the sun shone brightly as the students and teachers prepared the chemistry activities to be presented during the public event. Organizers requested 30 students, but around 80 showed up in their smart school uniforms. The event was held in a square in front of the cathedral, right in the town center, which proved to be a perfect venue. The square was decorated with the invitation posters (also scattered over Grahamstown) and the winning posters from the competition “Chemistry for Humanity” <>.

Organizers felt that the Grahamstown YAC event may have been the best public awareness of science event they had ever been a part of. One highlight of the event included perhaps the largest edible DNA model from sweets ever created, which was 12-meters long. (Guinness may like to get in touch!) The 18 TV commercials by students were theatrical and it proved difficult for the judges to choose prize winners. In fact, organizers and teachers ransacked their SciFest visitor’s bags (caps and T-shirts) for freebies to have more prizes to offer the students.

In addition, the student reporters did a fantastic job, with excellent leadership from a teacher named Vuks, who briefed and coordinated the students. He had a maximum of 17 student reporters at a time, who asked the public for its opinions regarding chemistry. The effort yielded questionnaires with around 80 complete answers on the three questions:

Question 1: Do you know what the students are doing?
Yes: 46% No: 54%

Question 2: Do you like what the students are doing?
Yes: 84% No: 16%

Question 3: “What can you remember of your own chemistry lessons in school?”

This resulted in a variety of answers:

  • negative: “chemicals are dangerous”
  • theoretical: “mercury is very heavy and sulphur is very yellow” and “I still remember the tests for the gases and most of the Periodic Table”
  • practical: “I know that chlorine kills harmful bacteria in water”
  • appreciative: “we did not have these kinds of things in our generation, but we are glad for our children”

This last YAC couldn’t have been better: many enthusiastic students, lots of general public, and wonderful weather. Teachers took their own children or proudly posed with their students for the photographer. The headmistress and the science teacher of Ntsika came to watch their students.

There is little, or no, access to computers and the internet in schools in this area, so the organizers need to find a way to connect these teachers to the rest of the world. The MiST (Mathematics, Information and Communication and Technology [ICT], Science) Research Centre at Rhodes University decided to consider the logistics for sustaining the YAC initiative. Ngcoza learned that C.M. Vellem school is involved in the Eyethu ICT initiative, through which they receive computers and internet connectivity to share with the community. It will be ideal to link the YAC South Africa project to this initiative. This school is central to the other schools involved in the workshop.

Steenberg and her colleagues at RADMASTE are looking into the possibility of inviting teachers to YAC workshops and having another YAC event in the future. There is interest in establishing a YAC in Mpumalanga and in Gauteng, which would bring YAC to three of the nine provinces in South Africa.


  • Science Across the World <>
  • GlaxoSmithKline, the former main sponsor of the Science Across the World program <>, sent goody bags for all participating teachers and students.
  • SASOL Scifest (Brian Wilmot) for a great deal of input during planning, sponsorship of workshop participants’ lunches, and transportation of the students from Joza
  • South African Chemical Institute (Mike Booth) and RADMASTE Centre (John Bradley) for sponsoring the course book printing
  • RADMASTE Centre for supplying teachers’ files
  • Rhodes University, Education Department for hosting the workshops
  • MiST (Mathematics, Information and Communication and Technology, Science) Research Centre of Rhodes University, for communicating with IT, writing letters, and contacting schools
  • Department of Education, Grahamstown District, for writing a covering letter to ensure that teachers were able to attend the workshops
  • Kate Benyon for organizing and booking the YAC Event venue and securing tables to be used for the YAC event near the Cathedral
  • Cognis, for donating the detergent, the raw material for production of a shampoo
  • BioRad for donating a Genes-in-a-Bottle Kit
  • Central Laboratory of the Research Councils in the United Kingdom for donating copies of the Seeing Science CD-ROM
  • Roche for donating the Roche Genetics CD-ROMs
  • University of Cambridge, International Examinations, for donating the Science Support Resources CD-ROMs

For more information about the YAC project, contact Lida Schoen at <[email protected]>.

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