Third successful interdisciplinary training school on solar energy and photosynthesis held at UP

Posted on November 27, 2019

A very unique postgraduate spring school on solar energy and photosynthesis recently took place at the University of Pretoria (UP). This annual event, which attracts overwhelming interest, is unlike any other around the world due to three key elements: the African focus, the truly cross-disciplinary focus, and active engagement through a flipped-classroom approach.

African focus

The main purpose of this school is to teach, train and equip African students – mainly postgraduate students – to address the unique energy-related challenges of the African continent. Organisation of the school is motivated particularly by realities that over the next two decades, Africa’s energy demand is predicted to be the highest of all continents due to a strong population and economic growth. The urgent need for clean, sustainable energy is particularly pressing for this continent. Furthermore, Africa is facing an immense knowledge gap in research and technological development, and multidisciplinary research and education are extremely limited in Africa.

This year, talented students were attracted from Egypt, Sudan, Ghana, Cameroon, Chad, the Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Uganda, Botswana, and obviously various research-intensive universities in South Africa. Last year, Kenya, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Namibia were additionally represented.

A unique facet that was added this year was to invite two companies, Positive Planet International and Solar Works!, to discuss innovative business models for the successful implementation of solar energy technologies in rural areas in Mozambique, Malawi and Lesotho. Also, Dr Karen Sanedi from the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) discussed energy policies and the current energy mix in South Africa as well as possible solar energy interventions that must be made in the country. These discussions were aided by a public evening lecture series so that not only the school participants but the public at large was able to benefit from this important topic.

The biggest hurdle for most African students to come to South Africa is the financial barrier. For this reason, the financial barrier was lowered by waiving the registration fee and offering a large number of travel bursaries. To this end, we are grateful for the funding we have received from the African Laser Centre, the French Embassy in South Africa, Hiden Analytical, and Future Africa.

A truly cross-disciplinary focus

The broad topic was investigated from various angles, aligned with the expertise of the UP lecturers from the departments of Physics, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology, as well as Plant and Soil Sciences. Also, we had the privilege of hosting three leading international scholars as guest lecturers. They are all based in multidisciplinary departments in Europe: Prof Dirk Guldi (Interdisciplinary Center for Molecular Materials, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany), Prof Artur Osyczka (Molecular Biophysics, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland) and Dr Manuel Llansola-Portoles (Biochemistry, Biophysics and Structural Biology, CEA-Saclay, France).

The cross-disciplinary approach involved physics, chemistry, materials science, biology and engineering. Students from these disciplines and more have been attracted to participate. The lectures focused mostly on foundational aspects to address the two major challenges of current solar energy technologies, which are the development of inexpensive materials that offer high efficiency of solar energy conversion, and solar energy storage in compact, inexpensive and durable forms.

The basic principles underlying solar energy conversion were taught for all existing types of solar harvesting materials. Considering that photosynthesis provides a solution to the two major challenges mentioned above, and achieves this on a massive scale, a major theme of the school was a detailed explanation of the photosynthetic process gaining bio-inspiration.

Besides learning the fundamental aspects and technological advances of different types of solar energy materials, biology and engineering students had the opportunity to be introduced to the quantum-mechanical basis of light-matter interaction as well as photophysical processes and various spectroscopy techniques, while chemistry and physics students were introduced to molecular biology and the remarkable design features of the photosynthetic process and were encouraged to reflect on different ways in which the natural process of energy conversion can be used as inspiration to drive the next generation of solar energy technologies.

For each of the past three schools, virtually all students indicated that the multidisciplinary focus of the school was very valuable and inspirational. The following student feedback is worth mentioning:

“There should be more of these multidisciplinary courses every recess.”

“I would recommend that a video should be made indicating that interdepartmental research/innovation is the future, with examples (such as artificial photosynthesis) where physicists, chemists, geneticists, microbiologists, etc. are required.”

“I think that we should have more lectures from researchers from other departments, presented easily but which highlights the overlap between the departments. I think this course was a great example of how a field of study can be a common one between various departments and that more courses like this should be organised (for example drug discovery).”

Active engagement

Active engagement with the material was a requirement for participation. This was encouraged by capping the number of participating students at 50 and by giving the students various tasks. For example, the students were given compulsory preparatory reading material several weeks before the start of the school, consisting of key literature on each of the topics, and were expected to answer a set of questions based on each article before the start of the school. As most of the lecturers are leading authors of the selected papers, they provided expert feedback on the students’ answers and encouraged further discussions in small, break-away groups at the end of each day. These activities lent themselves to a typical flipped class style of teaching. Furthermore, each lecture was followed by a quiz to provide immediate feedback to the students. Finally, the lecturers spent a large part with the students, creating many opportunities for informal discussions.

Prof Guldi’s active engagement with the students was particularly valuable. With over 600 peer-reviewed publications, nearly 40 000 citations, and an h-index of 97, he has been recognised by Thomson Reuters as being amongst the world’s Highly Cited Researchers. It was a privilege to involve experts like him to inspire and train the African students, our continent’s future leaders.

- Author NAS

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