Climate research is critical in Africa: how to make it more visible

Written by Prof Jennifer Fitchett (SAYAS member)

Weather and climate have far-reaching effects on every part of life. The timing of seasons, range of daily and seasonal temperatures, the amount of rainfall – these all influence things as diverse as food production, disease prevalence and tourism.

You don’t need to be a scientist to know what good weather feels like. But there’s a scientific discipline which studies the effect of weather and climate on natural systems. Biometeorology is the study of the role of climate on plants, animals and humans. This includes the impact of day to day weather and long term climate.

Specific fields of study include the role of weather and climate on phenology in plants and animalsplant productivity and domestic animal health and performance. Phenology is the timing of biological events that occur every year, like blossoming, fruit development and leaf colouration.

In human populations, the field of study includes analyses of thermal comfort and stress, the spread of climate-sensitive disease and the impact of climate on tourism.

The discipline was formalised in the 1950s with the establishment of the International Society of Biometeorology and its flagship journal the International Journal of Biometeorology.

Biometeorological research is particularly important in Africa. The continent is projected to experience temperature increases bigger than the global mean throughout the 21st century. Changes in rainfall distribution are projected to heighten the occurrence and severity of droughts, floods and extreme climate events.

The Cape Town “Day Zero” drought, driven by a displacement of moisture corridors, was one such extreme drought. Cyclone Idai, which hit southern Africa in 2019, is one of the best examples of extreme flood events. These are projectedto become more common as tropical cyclones intensify.

The continent already experiences climate-sensitive diseases which present challenges to health systems. They include malaria, cholera, ebola, dengue and yellow fever.

Agriculture – both subsistence and commercial – is of great importance across the continent. And in many countries, climate-sensitive tourism sectors are becoming an important part of the economy.

The threats of climate change to plants, animals and people in Africa mean that the continent is an excellent place for biometeorological research. It also means that the findings of research are of critical importance in informing some of the most important policies.

But the continent is still not well represented in academic output in this field. I conducted a review and found that research in or about African countries makes up only 3.4% of the 4,014 papers in the International Journal of Biometeorology.

Topics of African biometeorology have been included in the journal since the first issue in 1957. The number of these papers has increased since 2011. But the overall number of papers increased at the same time, so the proportion of African papers hasn’t changed very much.

The majority of papers that have been published from the African continent are on topics of animal biometeorology. These include, for example, analyses of heat stress in hensbody temperatures of donkeys and the effects of melatonin on broiler chickens.

The African country with the biggest share of the papers is Nigeria. Again, the topics are mostly about animals. Some papers are on topics such as phenologyand conditions for malaria transmission.

Other countries where 15 or more biometeorological studies have been conducted are Algeria, Morocco, Ghana and South Africa.

Making up less than half the number of studies are topics like human thermal comfort and stress, human health, phenology, and plant productivity and stress.

In terms of authorship, 66% of these papers are by at least one researcher based in an African country. But only 15 African countries are included in this authorship.

How to increase African authorship

It’s possible that one reason African research is not well represented in the journal is that academics and their students aren’t aware of the subdiscipline, society or journal. The International Society of Biometeorology has been working to address this through including regional councillors in their executive. This could also be addressed in a number of ways. These include inviting more African researchers to serve as reviewers for the journal, organising African themes for the society symposiums and putting together special African issues in the journal. Each of these require engagement from and involvement of African researchers in this field.

Another key in promoting biometeorology is education at university level. The Students and New Professionals Group of the International Society of Biometeorology has been involved in developing educational content. Only one country in Africa (Uganda) currently has a biometeorology course. A handful of countries include biometeorology topics in broader courses on climate or the environment, and a small group of researchers are supervising students in these topics.

Over time a combination of these efforts will hopefully give the African continent greater representation in biometeorology research. This will improve the capacity to detect, measure and assess the impacts of climate change on natural systems and to develop effective adaptation strategies.

This article was first published in The Conversation.

Online and in the classroom, COVID-19 has put new demands on teachers

Written by Prof Nhlanhla Mpofu (SAYAS member)

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were on lockdown in South Africa from March 2020. They only partially reopened in June, despite teacher unions’ concerns about the timing and lack of adequate protection for teachers and learners.

The unions’ objections about having to work in conditions that posed a risk to health were understandable. But they have been less vocal about the teachers’ need to be equipped with the skills and infrastructure to teach during a pandemic.

The unpredictability of the pandemic and the restrictions on social interaction remain in place. No immediate end is in sight. Teachers have had to move from a space in which they have years of experience to the unknown and challenging world of online, remote, correspondence and socially distanced teaching.

The Department of Basic Education produced a COVID-19 guide for teachers focused on creating learning environments using technology. In practice, this meant the teachers needed to facilitate learning with the help of digital tools such as e-learning platforms, online videos and audio tutorials.

But the guide isn’t enough. Teachers are teaching with limited support and skills. My experience as a teacher educator, a researcher in teacher education and as a former high school teacher point to the fact that teachers are woefully under prepared to deal with the current situation.

The average age of South African teachers is 43. This implies that many left teacher training over 20 years ago and might have limited knowledge of designing learning that differs from the face-to-face classroom methods.

Vision for technology

The use of technology to design and transform learning and assessment has been a strategic goal for some years, as captured in the 2004 White Paper on e-Education. Over the years, the Department of Basic Education has added detail to its vision in documents such as Guidelines on e-Safety in Schools: Educating Towards Responsible, Accountable and Ethical Use of Information and Communication Technology in Education and Guidelines for Teacher Training and Professional Development in Information and Communication Technology.

But the department has experienced a number of challenges along the way. One main challenge has been the expense of investing in technology, and whether it’s justified by the return. Even before the pandemic there were challenges with the use of technology in public schools that included inadequate infrastructure, poor internet connectivity and lack of digitally competent teachers.

During the lockdown this reality was made clearer as many public-school teachers who didn’t have the experience, knowledge or infrastructure to facilitate online learning found it challenging.

Based on earlier research it’s much more likely that they didn’t use the technology to its full capacity. For example, previous studies showed that teachers didn’t use technology to help learners produce knowledge.

There’s also the fact that the teacher workforce is largely ageing and technophobic. The instructional methods in an online learning environment differ from the face-to-face classroom that most teachers use. The online ways of supporting learning and attending to different learning styles require skills that teachers from traditional classrooms don’t have.

Added to this is the fact that there is uneven access to digital tools across the country.

The new challenges in teaching

The pandemic has taken the known interactive, collaborative and cooperative classrooms and predictable timetables from teachers and replaced them with uncertainty.

These are perilous times, but teachers are transforming and adapting their knowledge to ensure that learning takes place. Research shows that teachers are able to reshape their knowledge and dispositions to function and respond to any challenging situations.

There is no manual for this situation. But there is an opportunity to rethink and redesign what it means to teach and learn during and after the pandemic. Importantly, it’s a chance to address the gross inequalities and inadequacies in South African education.

This article was first published in The Conversation.