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Science Deans Forum: Decolonising Science, Determining Knowledge and Developing Graduates

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

Few topics get scientists as excited as the nature of science and the future of scientific education - and that certainly holds true for the Deans of Science and representatives from 14 South African universities at the recent Science Deans Forum at UWC.

(Published - 14 November 2018)

Here’s an inconvenient truth: most students who receive undergraduate degrees in Science will not go on to do their postgrad studies, or to work in the field they studied. What’s more, most science grads will have forgotten the content they learned within a year (if not months)...and much of what they remember will have been rendered obsolete by the march of knowledge.

So what is the value of their Science degrees? What do they have to show for their efforts? And how does society benefit from having more people study STEM?

These and other topics were under discussion at the South African Science Deans Forum meeting on 9 November 2018.

“We are well into the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” said current Forum Chair, Professor Michael Davies-Coleman, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

“Never before have we had so much access to knowledge - but never before has the rate of change in knowledge been so great, or in technology, or in the change of systems. We are educating young people for jobs that don’t exist yet - and what does that mean for us as Science Deans?”

The National Science Deans Forum provides an opportunity for Deans of Science from all the Higher Education Institutions in the country to collaborate, network and share knowledge of common concern - a community of practice with a common sense of purpose working together to cultivate best practice and foster innovation.

As Prof Tyrone Pretorius, UWC’s Rector and Vice-Chancellor, noted: “While we may be competitors in some sense, this Forum shows that we are also collaborators in the science space.  Science is a big enterprise - and we can only solve the big questions and challenges facing our society if we work together.”

The agenda covered a range of topics. What counts as a science faculty? How can Deans ensure that students are prepared to apply for bursaries and financial aid? How best can meetings be arranged for the benefit of all?

“We have many differences - in the subjects we cover, in the size of our student bodies, and in many other things,” Prof Davies-Coleman noted. “But all boats rise together, and we need to work together, because the challenges we face are largely the same.”

And of course, one of the biggest such challenges is the call to decolonize knowledge - or, more dramatically, #ScienceMustFall.

Science Must Fall: A Clash Of Codes

Decolonising the science curriculum is something that’s going to be on the agenda for a long time. It’s not just a South African issue - and it’s not going away anytime soon.]

In recognition of that, Dr Hanelie Adendorff and Dr Margaret Blackie from the University of Stellenbosch guided the assembled Deans through a discussion on Decolonizing the Science Curriculum: Can Legitimate Code Theory show a way forward?

The conversation around the decolonization of higher education curricula hit South Africa by storm with the #RhodesMustFall and subsequent #FeesMustFall campaigns - and for science, with the (in)famous #ScienceMustFall video, which brought international attention to the discussion.

Some of the heated arguments in decolonization conversations can be equated to a code clash - a conflict in terms of what counts as legitimate knowledge between those arguing for decolonization and the dominant codes, or practices, in the field of science,

“It’s a clash about the importance of the knower vs the importance of the knowledge - heart of the debate about decolonising science,” said Dr Adendorff. “What makes knowledge legitimate?

And who’s allowed to make this assessment? Is the basis for legitimacy in the claim itself...or in who’s making the claim?”

Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) explains why. Science Must Fall, the Stellenbosch researchers noted, involved people talking past each other - and a clear division between scientists on one hand, and social scientists and humanities students on the other.

Science is based on epistemic relationships, concerned with knowledge itself. Social sciences and the humanities are more concerned with social relationships (relationships concerned with knowers).

For science, explanatory power is the holy grail: “What matters is what you know, not who you are.”

In social science and the humanities, it’s the knowers that are hierarchically organised, not the knowledge. That’s why social scientists can call for starting over - but scientists find it hard to do.

“In Science education all too often we stop at the ah-hah! moment - that moment when a student grasps a difficult concept, and we pat them on the back and send them on their way, and go no deeper,” Dr Blackie said.

“If our graduates are going to contribute meaningfully to society, we cannot stop there. We need to help students to evaluate their knowledge, and learn to make good decisions based on that knowledge. We need them to ask themselves: ‘Do I need more information? Or can I render good judgement?’”

But decision-making is not an endgame - decisions lead to new experiences, which need to be evaluated, and decisions need to be made about those. And so the cycle repeats - and over time, students develop not just graduate attributes, but also critical citizenship.

The crucial point, all agreed, is that this is a real conversation that needs to happen. So how do we have that real conversation?

“We must recognise that science can be manipulated by those in power,” said Dr Adendorff. “But we must also ensure that the scientific project is not eroded. Don’t rob the next generation of the power of scientific knowledge - the very knowledge that they will need to improve their lives, and the lives of the generations to come.”

For important reasons, the researchers said, we can’t approach decolonisation in Science in the same way as the humanities. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it at all.

“There are risks inherent in rushing into decolonizing science - but it’s our desire that you’ll leave here with hope,” Dr Adendorff concluded. “The hope born from understanding that the call to decolonize science is an opportunity as well as a challenge - an opportunity to make science and science education better, and to produce greater value for graduates...and for society as a whole.”

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