Community Engaged Research Within SDL


The Research Unit Self-Directed Learning is heavily engaged in community-based research. The acclaimed ‘Teachers Without Borders’ project, under the leadership of Prof Josef de Beer, was the winner of the 2019 NRF Excellence in Science Engagement Award, and a Finalist in the 2020 NSTF-South32 Awards (in the Science Communication category). This research is rooted in action research with holders of indigenous knowledge. Researchers such as Prof Elsa Mentz, Prof Neal Petersen, Prof Marthie van der Walt, Prof Washington Dudu, Dr Lounell White, Dr Melissa Speight-Vaughn, Dr Divan Jagals, Mr Benjamin Seleke, Mr Tswakae Sebotsa and Mr Kobus Havenga are researchers in the project. There are also a few researchers outside SDL involved, e.g. Prof Ben-Erik van Wyk, from the University of Johannesburg.

The ‘Teachers Without Borders’ project empowers Science, Technology and Mathematics (STEM) teachers to contextualize CAPS curriculum themes to culturally diverse learners, through the infusion of indigenous knowledge. However, this intervention is underpinned by participatory action research with local communities, and in our context, specifically with Khoisan communities in the Northern Cape, Bapedi and VhaVenda cultures in Limpopo Province, and with the Bakgatla people in the North-West Province. Research has been done on the rich ethnobotanical knowledge in these regions, and these insights led to a short learning programme, underpinned by self-directed learning principles, in which teachers are assisted in the epistemological border-crossing between western science curriculum themes, and indigenous knowledge. Teachers are assisted in engaging learners in ethnobotanical surveys in their communities, by utilizing the Matrix Method developed by De Beer and Van Wyk (2011). However, community members (indigenous knowledge holders) are actively involved in the research (e.g. co-publishing papers).  To date, around 650 teachers have been assisted in their own professional development, benefiting thousands of school learners. This big footprint of the project, and its impact on communities, was one of the reasons why the projectreceived the NRF Excellence in Science Engagement Award in 2019.


Research design in action research with communities

Baum, MacDougall and Smith (2006:854) describe participatory action research (PAR) as an approach that “seeks to understand and improve the world by changing it. At its heart is collective, self-reflective inquiry that researchers and participants undertake, so they can understand and improve upon the practices in which they participate and the situations in which they find themselves. The process of PAR should be empowering and lead people having increased control over their lives”.

This materializes on two levels within this research:


Holders of indigenous knowledge engage with university researchers in developing a Materia Medica of indigenous plant use. This is communicated in publications, in which the indigenous knowledge of the participants is acknowledged (with their photographs). In some cases, these knowledge holders also publish and present the research at conferences (refer to the paper by Jautse, Thambe and De Beer, 2016, for example). Notable publications include the ethnobotanical study in the Hantam (De Beer & Van Wyk), and specifically the chapter by De Beer and Mentz (‘The affordances of indigenous knowledge in decolonizing the curriculum, within a self-directed learning framework’) in the 2019 AOSIS book, ‘The decolonization of the curriculum project: The affordances of indigenous knowledge for self-directed learning’, edited by Josef de Beer. In 2019 research was also undertaken by De Beer in the square kilometer assay (SKA) area in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, whereby participants in the SKA area, that were relocated from farms to nearby towns, were assisted in capturing their rich indigenous knowledge for future generations. (Refer to the attached photographs). This joint research results in an Ethnobotanical Knowledge Index (EKI) for each participant, and a Species Popularity Index (SPI) of the most important plant species used for medicinal and food purposes in each region. In Fig 1 the cover page of a 2020 publication is shown, in which this research is communicated to communities. These books are made available free of charge to communities (due to generous funding), in order to preserve this rich indigenous knowledge. The spin-off of this research, is the empowerment of the research participants. Jan Baadjies, shown on the cover of the Karoo book on the next page, developed such self-confidence through his participation in the research, that he started to act as eco-tourism guide in Calvinia, earning a living for him and his family. In Figure 2  photographs are provided of SDL’s  engagement with research participants in the SKA area in the Karoo.


This knowledge base makes it possible to engage with a second group of research participants, namely STEM teachers. These teachers are supported in epistemological border-crossing in the classroom, and in engaging in classroom action research. An example of a publication stemming from such classroom action research (CAR), is the paper by Jackson, De Beer & White, in which Cherine Jackson (a Life Sciences teacher) published the results of her CAR on the use of foldscope microscopes. Over the four years of the ‘Teachers Without Borders’ project, 650 teachers were assisted in their own professional development (Refer to Fig 3). These interventions were researched over the past four years, and the findings of this design-based research, were disseminated in the 2019 AOSIS book, ‘The decolonization of the curriculum project: The affordances of indigenous knowledge for self-directed learning’ (See Fig 4).



Evidence of community members as collaborators

In Figure 6 some of the participants in the Swartkop area in the SKA region, are shown. These are the photographs that also appear in the regional booklets (Fig 1), in which this indigenous knowledge is disseminated. Although Prof Van Wyk and Josef de Beer are the editors of the book, the manuscript celebrates the indigenous knowledge of all the participants. It preserves the rich ethnobotanical knowledge for future generations, and also gives the participants a sense of accomplishment. In Chapter 4 of the AOSIS book published in 2019 (see Figure 4), examples of the EKI’s of the participants are provided.

One of the tools provided to teachers during the SLP’s, is the foldscope microscope. Cherine Jackson published a paper in Perspectives in Education on this work (co-authored by Josef de Beer and Lounell White), based on her successful ISTE paper on such ‘frugal science’ classroom action research. Refer to Figure 5.



Evidence of research outputs

Herewith the 2019 publications applicable to this community-based research:

De Beer, J. (2019). CHAT as a practical lens when engaging in classroom action research in the Biology class. The American Biology Teacher 81(6), August 2019.


De Beer, J. (2019). The affordances of project-based learning and classroom action research in the teaching and learning of Natural Sciences. Perspectives in Education 37(2), 75 - 87.