Science Olympiads And Their Role In Education
A school-based curriculum is geared towards providing learners (students) and the teachers with guidance on what has to be taught at each age. Hence teachers are trained professionally and are therefore equipped to cover fixed syllabi at each grade (and age) of a learner. This limits the scope of the subject material taught at each age.
Though teachers and learners are encouraged to also demonstrate understanding, skills and values linked to the knowledge gained, the school calendar, time available and student ability restricted the growth in these areas. The school population and class numbers are usually too large for teachers to give special attention to the above average and especially the gifted and talented learners. Therefore classroom teaching and learning is often governed by and restricted to the syllabus and very largely knowledge-based.
The introduction of Olympiads in Science (and also in many other learning areas) in South Africa (and in other parts of the world) provides the above average and talented learners with greater challenges in Science. While the questions are based on the knowledge gained, they tested other abilities such as understanding, analysis, problem-solving and values. These Olympiad questions are regarded as being more difficult and of a higher level in nature and challenged students to think.
These Olympiads also provide a platform for many other positive outcomes for Teachers and Learners:
- Teachers gain exposure to a bank of data response questions that could contribute to them raising the level of their classroom teaching.
- Learners experience and demonstrate higher levels of thinking and skills required to answer Olympiad questions with a view to a higher level of performance at school and National and International levels.
- The collection of statistics on performance and data on specific concepts and curriculum areas that require special attention.
- A comparison among schools on a National level based on performances in these Science Olympiads
- Development of Strategies and revision programmes to improve performances
- Successful and highly gifted learners could be identified early and nurtured towards specific careers.
- Selection and training of National teams to participate at International Level
South African Science Olympiads
Science Olympiads for all learners are being promoted in keeping with decisions taken at various stakeholder levels, involving the Department of Education, Department of Science and Technology and Provincial Departments. This initiative falls within discussions encompassing the South African Government’s ‘Youth into Science Strategy’.
The National Science Olympiad Organising Committee have been organising and promoting the South African Science Olympiads in Natural, Life and Physical Sciences for all learners Nationally, in both Primary and Secondary schools, over the last 20 years. Students writing these Olympiads qualify for selection to represent the country in one of four International Olympiads:
- International Junior Science Olympiad (IJSO) for Natural Sciences with an age limit of 15 years (held in December each year)
- International Physics Olympiad (IPHO) with an age limit of 20 and only for students not yet at University (held in July each year).
- International Chemistry Olympiad (ICHO) with an age limit of 20 and only for students not yet at University (held in July each year).
- International Biology Olympiad (IBO) with an age limit of 20 and only for students not yet at University (held in July each year).
Other Olympiads are also being organized in South Africa. Two are mentioned below.
National Research Foundation (NRF South Africa) through agencies (FEST and SAASTA) have promoted a Senior Olympiad for over 50 years in Physical and Life Sciences at Grade 12 level (also allowed Grades 10 and 11 to participate). This Olympiad is not affiliated to any International Olympiad.
History Of Olympiads And Background
Science Olympiads (Natural, Life and Physical Sciences) were initiated under the auspices of SAASTE-KZN (South African Association Science and Technology Educators) in 1997 by a group of Science Lecturers at the then Springfield College of Education (in Durban). These Olympiads in the Sciences were initiated as a means to improve the Teaching and Learning of the Sciences at Primary and Secondary schools in KwaZulu-Natal. From the year 2000, these Olympiads were offered to learners throughout the country, in 10 grades and three learning areas.
At present, Olympiads are offered to learners in:
- Natural Sciences – for grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9
- Life Sciences – for Grades 10 & 11
- Physical sciences – for Grades 10 & 11
On an annual basis, between 13 000 to 18 000 learners have participated in these Olympiads. The schools that participate include Government, independent and private schools. These numbers are very small when compared to the actual number attending primary and secondary schools in South Africa.
Participation in the Olympiads is dependent on the payment of an entry fee and it is open to all learners. While there has been a fair cross-section of learners participating from government and disadvantaged schools, their numbers are not significant enough for one to predict any long-term gains for improving the number of black learners that may perform better in the Sciences. It is often stated that a very large number of the learners in South Africa do not enter because they cannot afford to pay the entry fees charged.
The Olympiad committee made many attempts to the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) to sponsor learners from disadvantaged schools to participate. In this way many more learners could be exposed to the Olympiads as a way to improve the teaching and learning of the sciences.
The participation of learners from the disadvantaged schools may also open the way for:
- Teachers to gain exposure to a bank of data response questions that could contribute to them raising the level of their teaching.
- Learners to experience the higher level of thinking and skills required to answer Olympiad questions. In this way we would be able to identify Talent in Science for further training in camps and other projects.
- The collection of statistics on performance and data on concepts that require further attention.
- A comparison to be made between performances in the Maths and Science Olympiads
- Strategies and revision programmes could be organised to improve performances
- Successful learners could be included in the DSI and other camps, so that they could further benefit from the programmes and probably earn selection to represent South Africa or further assistance from DSI at University.
- The disadvantaged learners would get a chance to compare their performances with the learners from other schools throughout the country.
Olympiads therefore aim to identify talent in the sciences at school level and to develop this talent. The identification of this talent can be achieved through participation in the first round of the Olympiads, final round of the Olympiads and revision programmes. Learners will be exposed to the problem-solving approach enabling them to improve significantly in Science. The programme will reach many more parts of the country, including the rural areas.
Further development of talent could be achieved through the training camps, tuition groups and participation in international Olympiads (IJSO, IBO, IPHO and ICHO competitions).
While we expected that the growth and participation in the Olympiads to accelerate over the last 10 years, but this did not happen. We attempted to use various means to reach out to schools in the country. At present, most of the disadvantaged schools do not participate, in spite of us sending them invitations through the MST Co-ordinators (Mathematics, Science and Technology Co-ordinators), post, email and advertising.
It would seem that they do not have funds to enter the learners or that It would be sad if the majority of learners continue to be excluded from the Olympiads through a lack of funding or interest.
Our recent meetings with the DBE officials seem to indicate that there is a budget in each Province for participation of Learners in Olympiads. However, it is not easy to source these funds for many reasons:
- The MST co-ordinators are expected to identify and decide on the use of the funds. Hence they have to made proposals and plans for the use of these. As it requires a great deal of planning and effort, the officials have not been getting involved. Many have promised to make a concerted effort to enter their learners annually. This has not happened yet.
- The Provincial Departments have these monies in their budgets and they have been using the monies for other needs. More clarity is needed on this status.
The inclusion of learners sponsored by DBE would boost participation and enable a concerted effort to be made to search for talent in the disadvantaged communities and schools, particularly among girl learners. There is a urgent need for the officials of the DBE (Advisors, Subject specialists, MST co-ordinators, District Managers and Principals) to recognize the importance of their participation in promoting Science and in growing the numbers of talented Science learners through the Olympiads.
Teachers would also gain greater knowledge and skills in using data, graphs and in discussing global issues making them better equipped to teach through their empowerment. Currently Olympiad papers are set by selected panels (experts and professional) that include selected teachers, college and university lecturers. These papers are further moderated and verified before being written. Hence the quality and levels of work in the Olympiads is sufficiently rigorous to challenge not only the learners but also the teachers.
The objectives listed below are taken from the invitation sent to schools and shows important aspects of Science teaching and learning.
Objectives And Outcomes Of The Science Olympiads
- The development of general knowledge, skills, attitudes and values in the spirit of science.
- The development of Science to foster problem solving and creative thinking
- The application of scientific knowledge and skills to problems in innovative ways.
- Enrichment in science and meaningful concept formation in learners.
- To identify and nurture talented learners and to improve the performance of average learners.
- To create an interest in and to develop positive attitudes to science, ecology and the environment.
- To empower teachers with a wide range of skills and data response types of questions.
- To encourage learners to develop a passion for science that may encourage them to pursue careers in Science and Technology