Citizen Science: UP academic fosters love of science among learners

Posted on November 14, 2018

“Can plants get sick, too?” This was the question posed to Grade 9 to 12 learners last year at National Science Week in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, by Cape Citizen Science, a project initiated in the Western Cape by Joey Hulbert and his supervisors. Hulbert is a PhD candidate in UP’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. His project caught the attention of Science journal editors, who ran a story about it in their blog earlier this year.

“Citizen science” is a term for scientific research projects conducted by the public. Through his project, Hulbert has already built an impressive community of citizen scientists.

Hulbert says his objective is to engage the public in his PhD research about the diversity of Phytophthora (an aggressive fungus) species in the Cape floristic region. He is being supported by the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Tree Health Biotechnology.

One of their programmes was conducted at Cape Point in partnership with the South African Education and Environment Project NGO. Learners from two schools in Philippi, an informal settlement in Cape Town, were taught about microbes as a cause of disease, as well as the importance of biodiversity. They went out into the field, hiking along the False Bay coastline in search of pathogens that affect fynbos and types of coastal vegetation. “We engaged youth from many groups. We also organised activities with the Cape Nature Junior rangers and a group called VisionAfrika,” Hulbert says.

His team is focused on helping science enthusiasts (and potential future scientists) develop decision-making and problem-solving skills. During National Science Week in Khayelitsha, the team was on an outreach project in the global biodiversity hotspot. The students examined unhealthy plants under dissecting microscopes and held Petri dishes containing fungal-like organisms up towards the light. Later that day Dylan, a Grade 10 learner, approached the researchers and asked them to tell him more about their work. Inspired by Dylan’s interest, Hulbert and his team invited the learner to their lab, upon which he immediately asked, “Can I bring my friends?”

Dylan and his friends, Ayabonga and Ivan, joined the researchers in the lab, often spending hours making their way there on public transport and occasionally finding themselves cash-strapped (although they were reimbursed for their efforts). On his first visit to the lab, Dylan revealed that it was his first time looking through a microscope. After a few more trips, he was sold – he wanted to study microbiology at university.

Cape Citizen Science encourages researchers to participate in public engagement programmes because they can increase the value and capacity of research beyond science. The team also urges leaders of conventional science projects to open their programmes to citizens, especially to those who don’t have reliable access to quality science education.

Other interesting Cape Citizen Science projects that have involved amateur scientists include finding out how Phytophthora affects the ability of plants to photosynthesise, whether the fungus affects carbon or water relations, and the interaction between drought and Phytophthora on certain trees.  

- Author Tebogo Menong

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