Two caring farmers plus hi-tech maths and science tablet = A for maths

Computing

The intervention of two brothers, both semi-retired engineers and farmers, armed with a unique classroom support package containing video-based maths and science content, led to achievement against the odds for one savvy Eastern Cape pupil.

Alexandra matriculant Siviwe Mbele, 17, achieved a distinction for maths and last month (February) started her studies in information systems at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth.

It's a fine achievement for any matriculant – but more so for Mbele when you consider that of the 46 pupils who wrote matric at Ukhanyo Secondary School, she was one of just 19 to pass. Of the 13 who wrote the maths exam, she was one of just six to pass.

She's quick to admit the quality of maths education at the school is poor – so how did she manage to achieve 80% in the subject?

Help came in the form of two brothers – Paul and Stephen Fick, both semi-retired chemical engineers and farmers – who noticed standards slipping at the once-flourishing school and decided to do something about it.

"I was born here [inAlexandria]. This is my town," said 67-year-old Paul. "On noticing the poor mathematics performance and results of the school, I decided to get involved and assist where I could."

When the job got too big for the brothers, they went looking for assistance – and found it in the form of a tablet designed by South African tech company Future Mobile Technology (FMT) and loaded with content developed by NMMU's Govan Mbeki Mathematics Development Unit (GMMDU) to improve maths and science education in South Africa. This tablet is also available for retail to the general public as the netsurfer SCHOLAR.

The netsurfer tablet comes embedded with 183 hours of pre-loaded grade 10, 11 and 12 curriculum-aligned maths and science content. It is a world-first in mobile education, with lessons, experiments and discussions just a click away.

"Embedding the content on one of the netsurfer tablets means students like Siviwe, who live in remote areas or in lower-income homes without broadband, don't need to go online to access the learning materials," said FMT joint CEO Tracy Andersson.

The netsurfer SCHOLAR serves as a "personal tutor" to pupils, with video-based content aligned to the new CAPS curriculum, scientific calculator support material and old exam papers.

The model has been rolled out at GMMDU's Saturday incubator schools in five districts of theEastern Cape, specifically targeting pupils who show potential in maths or science at previously disadvantaged schools in urban and rural areas. In December, the incubator school project won gold at the prestigious Impumelelo Social Innovations Awards, presented by Minister of Science and Technology Derek Hanekom.

"I had the tablet with me 24/7 and worked on it a lot," said Mbele, who was one of four promising pupils at Ukhanyo who received a tablet. The help from the Fick brothers was also invaluable. "We learned things from them which our own teachers didn't tell us. I'm very grateful to them."

She also took the initiative to work through all the science lessons on the tablet – and is convinced this helped her pass science as well. "We hardly had a physical science teacher. I managed to do the work on my own."

Mbele is the first person in her family to attend university.

GMMDU head Prof Werner Olivier, who also holds NMMU's First Rand Foundation research chair in Mathematics Education, said: "We are harnessing the latest developments in technology for the purpose of creating independent learning environments… Siviwe's success confirms the value of our resources."

The tablet retails nationally as the netsurfer SCHOLAR, at 250 shops within the Foschini group, including Foschini, Exact!, Markham's, jewellery stores, (Mat and May, Sterns, Matrix, American Swiss Jewellers), sports stores (Total Sports & Sport Scene), and the group's mobile online store (www.tfgmobile.co.za).

The content is encrypted through FMT's Android Content Management System for Education and Enterprise (ACMEE) to ensure the information is secure.