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Improving science literacy in high schools in South Africa


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Improving science literacy in high schools in South Africa

ndlovu lLerato Ndlovu is a South African Tuberculosis Immunologist based at the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), and a Community and Public Engagement (CPE) PhD Fellow at the Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence (SANTHE), one of the 11 Developing Excellence, Leadership, and Training in Science in Africa (DELTAS Africa) programmes. DELTAS Africa funds collaborative consortia led by Africa-based scientists to amplify Africa-led development of world-class research and scientific leaders on the continent, while strengthening African institutions. It is implemented through Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), a funding, agenda-setting, programme management initiative of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), founding and funding global partners, and through a resolution of the summit of African Union Heads of Governments. DELTAS Africa is supported by Wellcome and the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO, formerly DFID).


This study sought to make science accessible to high school pupils in rural communities in South Africa. Scientific concepts were introduced through an enactment of Tuberculosis (TB) pathogenesis (the development of a disease), and career talks were given by science communicators, engagement officers and researchers to promote science as a viable career path.

Description of the study

Lerato’s research project focuses on understanding the immune response to active TB disease and how this response changes when a person is on TB treatment. The overall goal is to identify a biological signature associated with early TB treatment success. With what Lerato learnt from this study, she initiated a community and public engagement project targeted at high school pupils in grades 10-12. A study by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that only 9% of 15-year-olds can reliably distinguish facts from non-facts. This is an alarming statistic considering the impressionability of children in that age group. It is also the age when pupils are choosing their field of study to prepare for college acceptance. Science literacy is therefore imperative in this group; I believe that this demographic stands to benefit most from engagement. Moreover, even though this CPE was not designed for health promotion per se, there was an additional benefit to enabling students in this at-risk age group to ask researchers questions on disease-related fields.

Lerato chose Estcourt, a rural community in the uThukela district located on the western boundary of KwaZulu-Natal, as the location for her project as she was born and raised there, and therefore knew first-hand the challenges faced by its people and schools. The study population consisted of five schools, reaching 763 students. She was in a unique position to not only give back to the community, but to highlight the impact of daily choices on community-specific disease profiles using infectious disease research, particularly around adherence to TB therapy and spread. The demand for such information was demonstrated by the number of questions we received around the use of traditional medicine for TB and HIV treatment.

The study consisted of three parts, all of which sought to improve access to scientific research and cultivate a relationship between the public and scientific community.

Part 1 consisted of students using a play to illustrate the interaction between cells of the immune system and TB-causing bacteria from the time it enters the lungs causing infection to the point of cure when bacteria are killed. Changes in the behaviour of cells with consistent and inconsistent treatment highlighted both the nature of Lerato’s research and the importance of adherence to TB treatment.

Lerato engaged? 13 students from the University of KZN drama department to perform the play, as well as design students from UKZN to develop the project logo, providing an additional opportunity for intensive involvement.

Part 2 consisted of career talks from colleagues representing different departments at AHRI. These included a public engagement officer, laboratory technician, other HIV and TB science researchers and a science communicator/journalist. The purpose of these presentations was to highlight science as a viable career path, and to showcase a range of ongoing research projects which have the potential to interest students.

Part 3 sought to identify five motivated students, based on response to a call for essays, to provide them an opportunity to interact with a science community through a week-long shadow experience at AHRI. These pupils would follow five mentors as they conduct experiments, attend lab meetings and weekly talks at AHRI, etc.

 At each stage, students were to have been provided an incentive for engagement: they would receive promotional material, journals, pencil cases etc., for either asking or answering a question. The competition winners were to receive laptops and the school with the most participating students was to receive a compound microscope with prepared slides.  Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the job-shadow experience was cancelled.

Lessons learned  

The main lesson Lerato took from this CPE project is that many pupils are interested in science, in understanding how disease works and/or how disease affects them, but lack a point-of-entry or access to this information. I learned that some of the distrust between members of the community and scientists is due to a lack of open engagement; I believe that these factors are the main reason stigma and myths particularly around TB and HIV are so prevalent. I also believe that repeated exposure to science in the form of engagement is the best approach to improve science literacy.

With the advent of COVID-19, there is a greater number of people exposed to science and scientific terms, leading to an opportunity for more dialogue around related myths. It is encouraging to see the impact science literacy has on the choices people make when it comes to hygiene practises and healthcare choices.

Another key takeaway from this experience is that, as much as the community can get excited about the work done in the lab, they are far more interested in how it can actually change/improve their lives. Scientists should be mindful, when designing such projects, what the broader impact of the research could be – the bench-to-bedside progression -- and how it can be effectively communicated.


Lerato’s project adds to evidence that science literacy is key to eradicating disease like HIV and TB in South Africa and around the world, and that therefore more attention must be given to community engagement beyond the classroom. Engagement must be tailored to the needs, traditions and culture of each community.  

The immediate impact of this project on her career was the ability to communicate her work in lay terms. This skill specifically developed during the process of preparing for this engagement, increased Lerato’s footprint as a scientist significantly. For example, she was  invited to speak on one of the largest radio stations in the country, uKhozi FM, about er research, on the occasion of the International Day for Women is Science (moreover, I was also invited to a radio interview on Voice of the Cape.) The audience of this radio station speak isiZulu; fortunately, her engagement project was conducted in isiZulu. She was also invited to speak on World TB Day, which in 2020 coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. Inevitably, she was asked to comment on the prevalence and interplay of these two diseases and their impact on South Africa.

Additional opportunities she has enjoyed as a result of the CPE project include the international FameLab competition, which requires participants to communicate their science in three minutes to a lay audience, and was named the regional winner, qualifying her to participate in the national competition.

Lerato believes that her CPE project and its positive outcomes reinforce the value of designing research grant applications to incorporate community engagement.

Post-engagement assessment

A survey was conducted in each of the five schools pre and post-engagement. These showed a 5% increase in the number of pupils interested in STEM or infectious disease research, as a potential career. Moreover, the number of pupils that indicated an awareness of infectious disease research increased from 52% to 70%.