Analysis of South African postgraduate degrees in science education: 1930-1999

Year: 2001

Author: Laugksch, Rndiger

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Having celebrated 1998 as a Year of Science and Technology, the South African government is becoming increasingly aware-consistent with world-wide trends-of the need to promote science and technology in the country. As is clear from the government's 1996 White Paper on Science and Technology, the increasing prominence of science and technology in the public arena is motivated by a number of reasons including, for example, the need for citizens to be able to use scientific and technological information to make more meaningful decisions in their daily lives and the realisation that science and technology (and consequently scientists, engineers and technicians) play an important role in the economic well-being of a country. It is widely accepted that South Africa requires vigorous and sustained economic growth in order to meaningfully address the many socio-economic challenges facing the country. However, in South Africa the number of scientists, engineers and technicians per 100,000 of the general population is very low compared with more developed countries such as, for example, Australia. In addition, contemporary modes of production increasingly require a workforce more knowledgeable in science and technology. However, student enrolments at tertiary educational institutions are decreasing in science and engineering related fields of study, and pass rates in grade 12 school leaving examinations in a critical school subject like Physical Science have generally been low. In fact, comparatively few students take this subject to grade 12. Moreover, South African students faired very poorly in comparison to students from other countries in the recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

From the above, it is clear that science education in South Africa faces a number of important challenges. The important role of research in helping to address these challenges must be regarded as incontestable, and it is therefore appropriate to examine the theses and dissertations completed at South African universities in science education to highlight key features of this country's science education research effort at it's most fundamental level. Such an analysis has never been undertaken to date. The period under review in this research commences with the year in which the first science education-related higher degree was awarded in South Africa, and ends with the latest year for which reliable and accurate graduation data are available. The analysis therefore includes the 70 years between 1930 and 1999.

The objective of the research is, firstly, to systematically describe trends in the award of theses (ie. doctoral degrees [ie. PhD, DEd, DPhil, etc.]) and dissertations (ie., Masters degrees [MEd, MSc, MPhil, etc.]) in science education completed at South African universities during this period. A second objective of the research is to analyse the topics addressed by these higher degrees. A higher degree in "science education" is here defined as any postgraduate degree that examines aspects related to at least one of the following themes: teaching and learning of the natural sciences (excluding mathematics); teacher development and training in the natural sciences (excluding mathematics); policy issues related to the provision of a) and b) above; methodological issues related to a) to c) above; and public understanding of science. The research methodology employed essentially involved systematically identifying science education-related postgraduate degrees completed at South African universities, and assigning keywords (content descriptors) that adequately describe the topics addressed by these degrees. In order to identify such works, appropriate databases such as Nexus (a database of current and completed research projects maintained by the South African National Research Foundation), Sabinet (a commercial database of numerous South African publication types), and the Union Catalogue of Theses and Dissertations (a database of South African higher degrees compiled by the Potchefstroom University Library) were interrogated using the following keywords and/or search strategies: Physics, Physical Science, General Science, Chemistry, Biology, science; Science AND (teach* OR prepar* OR learn* OR curricu* or educ*); and (Study and teaching) AND (chemistry OR biology OR physics OR science). Asterisks denote truncated word stems that allow all word combinations with that stem to be searched (eg. teaching, teachers, teachers', etc.). In this manner, over 400 Masters and doctoral degrees awarded in science education between 1930 and 1999 have been identified. As a number of inconsistencies and omissions were detected amongst the databases used, details of the degrees were verified by requesting all 20 university libraries to independently obtain details of their own holdings of science education-related thesis and dissertations completed at their institution, and to forward these details to me. Inconsistencies were then resolved by referring to the title page of the original. The gender of the authors was determined from the authors' full name listed in the database(s) or on the title page of the thesis or dissertation. Unfamiliar first names were referred to appropriate colleagues. The language in which the higher degree was written (ie. English or Afrikaans) was determined from the title. The abstract of the postgraduate degrees was obtained either from the databases or from the original work itself (where available). Both the title and the abstract was then read by myself in order to assign keywords to each of the higher degrees. Although the data collection phase has to all intents and purposes been completed, a number of minor verification details still need to be attended to before data analyses can commence. The first research objective will be achieved by examining the number of higher degrees awarded in particular time intervals (eg. decades) with respect to the variables of type of postgraduate degree (ie. thesis or dissertation), gender, language, and institution. Appropriate cross-tabulations between these variables will be performed (eg. type of degree and gender) and, for example, the chi-square test will be used to confirm the existence or absence of the statistical significance of any trends. The second research objective (ie. the description and analysis of the topics addressed by these degrees) will be achieved by analysing the relative frequency of the keywords or content descriptors over time (ie. frequency per 100 works for each time interval). This analysis is identical to that adopted by White (in press) in his analyses of science education research in the fourth edition of the Handbook of Research on Teaching. The relative frequency of content descriptors will also be correlated to other meaningful variables such as, for example, institutions, degree, year of award, and so forth. This research is an important attempt to identify the strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunity facing a central component of South African science education research; namely research conducted by higher degree students. As such, the work forms part of an ongoing, more general, first study of its kind-funded by the South African National Research Foundation-that attempts to analyse and identify the key features of South African research in science education, and thus chart new frontiers for educational research in the natural sciences in this country.