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UWC lecturers combine expertise to improve language barriers in understanding Chemistry

Author: Harriet Box

In a joint effort, lecturers at the University of the Western Cape came up with an innovative idea to teach the periodic table more effectively, especially for Xhosa-speaking students.

(Published - 26 August 2020)

In a joint effort, lecturers at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) came up with an innovative idea to teach the periodic table more effectively, especially for Xhosa-speaking students.

The decision to focus the project on this specific group was born from first-year chemistry students’ struggle to grasp English concepts. To find African solutions for Africa, the project embarked on a determined journey: for the periodic table to be completely translated into isiXhosa and to introduce technologically advanced STEM elements to assist struggling students.

To execute this challenging task, three innovative women lecturers in the Information Systems, Chemistry and African Language Studies departments formed a multidisciplinary research project to enhance teaching and learning to adequately prepare students for the fourth industrial revolution within the chemistry field

 The team consists of: 

  • Dr Sebolelo Mokapela - a senior lecturer and Head of African Language Studies who is translating chemistry practical content and aspects of the periodic table into isiXhosa;
  • Professor Mmaki Jantjies, an expert in the use of unique augmented reality tools to teach students about elements in the periodic table; and, 
  • Professor Fanelwa Ajayi, who is overseeing the chemistry-related aspect of the project. 

“Along with my Masters candidate, Thobinceba Siyatha, we've taken the existing chemistry subject content and translated it into isiXhosa,” said Dr Mokapela.

“Students in their first year often have to adjust to the trying experience of lectures only being offered in English. And if they’re trying to understand the content of a confusing lecture afterwards, they would find that even the resource materials are available only in a complicated academic English.”

Dr Mokapela found that many Xhosa-speaking students often feel “left behind” or run the risk of being regarded as “slow” due to the language limitations.

“I am pleased that this project is making it possible to embark on a learning journey or discipline in their mother tongue or language of choice,” she said.

“It is encouraging to know that with the help this programme offers, there will be no need for the students to spend excessive amounts of their time with a dictionary trying to make sense of the technical terms and/or concepts before they’re able to get to the actual subject content.”


Prof Jantjies from the Department of Information Systems is equally excited about the project. “Our role was to bring the design and development of the underlying technology component of the project. Using their mobile phones and tablets, students can view virtual chemistry elements in their real environment. The augmented reality applications allow them to overlay virtual images on their real environment. As part of the pilot phase, we began the project by using several existing chemistry augmented reality (AR) applications, including the Si Reality AR periodic table. We are currently in a long-term collaborative project of developing AR chemistry tools to enhance learning in science lessons,” said Prof Jantjies, who is a champion of diversity in STEM and has been named one of the #Inspiring50SA. She was acknowledged as a Young Mandela for using multilingual technology to enable school children and teachers from disadvantaged communities to thrive.

“STEM learning can be quite difficult to explain to students. And we wanted to find an interactive way of using the new immersive technologies, specifically looking at augmented reality and enhancing teaching and learning for students within chemistry.”

Prof Ajayi, UWC Associate Professor in Physical Chemistry, is known for taking STEM to schools. She’s also the founder of AmaQawe ngeMfundo, a non-profit foundation which promotes and enriches STEM by providing assistance with on-site experiments at schools in marginalised communities. Through her research endeavors and community outreach initiatives, Prof Ajayi has been nominated as one of the Next Einstein fellows (2019-2021) and is also one of the 2018 #Inspiring50SA.

“With this pilot project we wanted to tackle the important learning challenge students face: not having a complete library of these elements in isiXhosa and phrases to describe their interaction,” said Prof Ajayi.

And the women team can already see the results. 

“My role was to assist in making chemistry more relatable and understandable to students struggling with chemistry content and practicals. They are now able to understand where electrons, protons and neutrons are situated in atoms, because now augmented reality clearly illustrates, for instance, how electrons are shared between atomic centres. It is encouraging to see something that was generally difficult to understand for first-year students, really abstract concepts, now being grasped,” said Prof Ajayi.


More about:

Dr Sebollelo Mokapela is a multilingualism activist involved in various language forums that champion the use of indigenous languages as a medium of instruction in education. She is collaborating with the Department of Arts and Culture in Terminology Development on various disciplines. Some of Dr Mokapela's work can be found on the website of the national Department of Arts and Culture. She has translated a number of learning materials from Basic Education to Tertiary education for institutions such as the BEEP project for the University of Cape Town; Mathematics and Literary glossary project for the University of Fort Hare; and the Chemistry glossary for the University of Stellenbosch, to name but few that are relevant to this project. She is also pioneering the use of Indigeous Knowledge Systems (IKS) in education through translanguaging, a new concept towards the realisation of multilingualism and multiculturalism in the education sector.

Prof Mmaki Jantjies is passionate about using inclusive technology design methods to ensure that the system is able to enhance the teaching and learning project. Her objectives are to help learners, students and teachers to get access to online resources, learn programming and gain exposure to high-tech such as robotics. 

Prof Fanelwa Ajayi is a research leader in the development of green method nanobiosensors for the detection of antiretrovirals and tuberculosis treatment drugs. Prof Ajayi is also a fellow of the NRF Future Professors Programme and the current co-chair of the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS).


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