Japanese Embassy Sponsors Mobile Science Lab at UKZN

Through generous sponsorship from the Japanese Embassy, UKZN’s Science and Technology Education Centre(STEC@UKZN) is the proud owner of a mobile science lab in the form of a converted Mercedes-Benz Vito van.

The sponsorship of the van was facilitated by UKZN Foundation, who put UKZN’s Science Centre in touch with the Japanese Embassy’s Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Project.

Science Centre Co-ordinator, Dr Tanja Reinhardt, said: ‘We decided to name our van Science4U as the name reflects our goal to provide Science education for everybody.’

The interior of the van was especially designed and equipped to allow experiments in the field of physics and chemistry. The mobile science lab will go out to schools to provide hands-on activities and lab experiences to learners who do not have access to such facilities.’

The Science4U van is equipped with experiments to service groups of up to 50 learners. The experiments consist of 15 high-tech SPARK Science Learning System units which are all-in-one mobile devices that integrate a data logging tool with inquiry-based content and assessment. They provide a compact and portable solution to data collection and their rugged rubberised body and protected inputs provide a durable exoskeleton.

‘A SPARK science Learning System unit runs on batteries,’ said Reinhardt, ‘which is important as it allows us to conduct practical sessions in schools with no electricity and during load shedding.’

Reinhardt said it was possible to connect up to four different sensors to the unit therefore measuring more than four variables simultaneously. ‘Right after startup, the unit begins to display data collected from connected probes.’

The unit will automatically recognise any attached sensor and offer display options. The graphical interface allows the user to make real-time adjustments to the axes and experiment length while the unit is collecting data.

‘The six different sensors for each of the SPARK Science Learning Systems allow us to conduct various Grade 10-12 practicals in the South African CAPS curriculum,’ said Reinhardt.

The mobile lab also has 13 Basic PAS track systems. ‘This allows us to cover practicals such as investigating the relationship between force and acceleration (Grade 11), or the conservation of linear momentum (Grade 12). The system consists of a 1m track and two low friction cars with additional mass which can be combined with the motion sensor.’

Reinhardt said research had shown that hands-on experience impacted learners in a positive way as it increased engagement in learning, taught new skills and heightened awareness of scientific careers.

‘It’s not surprising that learners reported that by using the Mobile Science Lab they changed their opinion of science,’ she said. ‘It proved that science was relevant to their lives, made them curious of other applications they worked with and got them excited and inspired about science.

‘We hope that learners will benefit from this programme with an increased content knowledge and improved attitude toward science, which in turn will develop a scientifically-oriented mind.’

Reinhardt stressed that STEC’s mobile science lab was not only about learners. ‘We also want to work closely with the teachers and help them to increase their confidence levels in teaching the respective subjects,’ she said.

‘Teachers participating in this programme will benefit by increased content knowledge and greater awareness of high-tech science equipment. They have access to equipment and inquiry-based activities that are unavailable to them at their schools. This increases teacher confidence in their ability to deliver instruction and they are encouraged by the support from a community of lecturers and university students that share a common goal and vision for instruction.’

Reinhardt said the medium to long term impact of the Science4U mobile lab would be to raise the levels of educational attainment in science and mathematics of learners from historically deprived communities. ‘This in turn will increase the success rate and number of learners gaining access to university,’ she said.

Words: Dr Sally Frost

Photograph: Supplied