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19 September 2018
Academic Week 2018: Project Why Celebrates Critical Thinking And Creativity

(Published - 19 September 2018)

“The way we think shapes who we become - and when you come from abject poverty with a very humble beginning, the only way to make it in life is by making critical thinking your way of being.”

Those were the words of Ben Muteba, Bioinformatics Master’s student at the University of the Western Cape’s South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) - and one of the students selected to share his story as part of UWC’s Project Why at UWC Academic Week 2018.

Project Why deals with the enhancement of critical thinking skills and research skills for undergraduate students. A team of leading UWC academic researchers volunteered as mentors to work with a group of 12 enthusiastic and talented UWC postgraduate volunteers to obtain feedback on their experience of critical and creative thinking skills development during their undergraduate studies at UWC.

Muteba knows the effects of critical thinking on a difficult life, first-hand.

Born into a polygamous family in the Democratic Republic of Congo (with a father with three wives and thirteen children), to drop-out parents who found themselves at the mercy of powerful economic forces, Muteba became a street vendor at the age of 9, and dropped out of school at the age of 14 to become the main income provider of his family.

“Eventually the time came for me to be my own man and take on the world,” he said, “and thinking critically, without surrendering to anger or negative emotions, can make all the difference.”

Eventually, Muteba returned to school, earned his matric certificate, and applied to South African universities - including UWC. On the third try, he was finally accepted, but UWC was not the end of his journey of self-discovery.

After attaining only 53% in first year, and nearly being excluded from writing the final exam, he decided to dedicate himself to academics. He adopted a critical thinking approach, studying what lecturers wanted, learning on his own from other resources (from books to YouTube videos), and forming a study group where he could speak his mind and bounce ideas off like-minded students.

“The more I adapted to UWC realities and improvised when I was faced with an unpredictable situation, the more I found myself overcoming the race obstacle, the discrimination, the shame, the failure, the struggle,” Muteba said. “Every time I found myself failing or facing injustice, I said to myself, ‘Adapt, Improvise, Overcome’.”

His work paid off: he attained 80% in the second semester of second year, and became the top student in third year in Computer Science and Information Systems, holding that position for Honours, before switching to Bioinformatics for his Masters, and being selected as one of the exceptional students for Project Why.

“Although critical thinking is invisible to the physical eye, it is a powerful tool,” Muteba noted; “one with the ability to change ignorance into knowledge and knowledge into intelligence and intelligence into wisdom.”

Why Project Why? And Where To From Here?

Project Why was (and is) driven by Prof Michael Davies-Coleman, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, and Prof Lorna Holtman, Director of the School for Postgraduate Studies, with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, Prof Vivienne Lawack, as project sponsor.

“Critical thinking, arising from a deeper understanding of a discipline, is the cornerstone of the creativity and innovation necessary for success in postgraduate studies, where the creation of new knowledge is a prerequisite,” Prof Davies-Coleman explained.

“Through critical and creative thinking, students are empowered not only to change communities, but to change the world.”

Professor Ben Cousins of the Institute for Poverty, Land And Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) was a Project Why mentor - an experience he found both rewarding and enlightening.

“Project Why enabled me to interact with bright and articulate students from disciplines that I usually have little contact with,” he said. “What struck me most forcefully in these encounters was the determination to succeed, against all odds, they displayed - and the considerable obstacles to academic success that they encountered in their personal circumstances.”

Some of those obstacles include financial challenges and food insecurity (“(Hunger is not conducive to academic success”), xenophobia and loneliness, and the skepticism and cynicism of their peers.

“Critical thinking should be the first subject an undergrad student should be taught before any other subjects,” Muteba said.

How can critical thinking be incorporated into undergraduate education? Start small, Muteba suggested - perhaps with an hour or two per week on such topics as:

  • How to start an experiment;
  • How to ask questions;
  • How to read with comprehension;
  • How to exercise one’s mind;
  • How to be disciplined;
  • How to be bold; and,
  • How to train one’s mind to keep learning.

“Let’s look into the future and let’s imagine that the project has been implemented,” Muteba said. “The benefit will be that more UWC students - potentially millions more - will go out there and do interesting things, important things, inventive things.

“And that’s important because this world has some problems that require us to drop everything and solve. And for all of us here our future starts today.”