#02 2024

Learning to value nature and its biodiversity

By Joe Sibiya and Rudzani Maboyi, NRF-SAEON Ndlovu Node

The NRF-SAEON Ndlovu Node conducted its annual science camps for learners at the Kruger National Park and Wits Rural Facility – all under the theme ‘Biodiversity’ pitched at different levels.

Ndlovu Node Science Day 

Dr Tony Swemmer, manager of the Ndlovu Node, led the Grade 9 Science Camp with a lecture on why biodiversity is important. The learners were divided into two groups before they ventured out into the great outdoors in two Kruger Park game vehicles. Their assignment was to identify different species on the game drive and then returning to tally up their findings. The two groups took different routes.

After two hours of field drive observation, both groups returned to the lecture room. The learners engaged with each other as they investigated the scientific names of all the species they spotted with the aid of field guides provided by the Node, the internet and the guidance of the rangers present. In the process they were exposed to the scientific method of research and the sustainability of food webs. The two groups engaged in friendly competition to see which team had identified the most species.

During the closing feedback session, the learners mentioned a marked improvement in their knowledge of biodiversity and their research skills. The group also noted experiencing a sense of unity in their quest for knowledge. Although all the learners were from local schools, only three of them had previously been inside the Kruger National Park. The science camp was not only a learning experience, but a memorable introduction to experiencing nature.

Learners observing biodiversity (plants, animals and birds) from a game drive vehicle in the Kruger National Park as part of the Grade 9 Science Day activities.

The learners analysing and classifying the plant, bird and animal species that were spotted during the game drive using field guides provided by the Node.

Ndlovu Node Science Camp – Grade 10 

The Grade 10 class of 2023 had another opportunity to participate in a science camp in the Kruger National Park in February 2024. Dr Dave Thompson, a scientist at the Node, gave a mini-lecture on biodiversity as revision that exposed the learners to a simple scientific investigation that introduces reasoning and the all-important “scientific method”. A deeper discussion followed on scientific observations versus hypothesis, which is a level higher than work done in grade 9.

The learners were allowed fifteen minutes to observe species on the office premises outside. This enabled them to come up with research questions relating to their observations around the office premises. A foundation was built that enabled them to hypothesise about mammal distribution in highly disturbed and less disturbed habitats, which was the focal point for their project.

Later in the day, they ventured out into the field to collect data, which they entered on computers for analysis. On the third day, they finalised the data analysis and presented their findings. The learners demonstrated fundamental thinking and problem-solving skills through interactive discussions on topical issues and hands-on activities.

Sampling in the Kruger National Park with Dr Tony Swemmer.

Learners analysing the data they collected during fieldwork.

A Grade 10 learner presenting the results of her group’s research project.

Ndlovu Node Science Camp – Grade 11 

The Grade 11 science camp is the pinnacle and exit point of the Node’s three-year programme for learners. The camp was conducted out of the Wits Rural Facility. It was rewarding to see how the group has bonded from all virtual camps, virtual competitions and in-person science camps.

The activities of the camp began with an icebreaker exercise that revealed learners’ career choice profiles and science camp experiences and expectations. Dr Swemmer recapped the scientific method to encourage learner participation in designing and conducting a scientific research project. Learners were divided into three groups to brainstorm their project (identify relevant meaningful questions and come up with project ideas and methods for fieldwork).

The three groups each selected five habitats of their own choice as the study sites. They placed a motion sensor camera in each habitat and left it for a minimum of 24 hours to collect data about animal movement. GPS was used to save the coordinates of each habitat. A 20-m transect was used to measure tree coverage, grass height and distance from the site to the river, and to record the presence of trees in every metre of the transact. The random quadrat sampling method was used to measure the highest grass in each quadrat using a 30-cm ruler. This was repeated four times and the average of the highest grass in each habitat was recorded on the datasheet. GPS was used to save the coordinates of each site and measure the distance from each site to the river flowing near the habitats.

The data collected was captured on laptops. Learners analysed the data to gain insight into fascinating biological information about the study habitats. This allowed a comparative study of vegetation and animals in different habitats. The three projects showed different results and some hypotheses were rejected. Learners were able to draw conclusions based on the results of their study.

A fascinating and robust discussion developed among the groups as they communicated the data of their study.

The Grade 11 science camp was conducted out of the Wits Rural Facility.

Learners using the random quadrat sampling method.

Setting up a motion sensor camera to collect night time data.