INFOGRAPHIC: Wits through the eyes of the Great Hall

If the Wits Great Hall could talk, it would have a lot of stories to tell. Wits Vuvuzela took a look at some of the iconic moments that have taken place inside or on its steps.

FEATURED IMAGE: The Wits Great Hall as it stands ready to see in the #Wits100 celebrations. Photo: Keamogetswe Matlala

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Wits considers varied assessments methods as restrictions are laxed

Wits University will look to increase the ways students’ knowledge and understanding of concepts are assessed, to optimise learning in 2023.   

Professor Diane Grayson, senior director of academic affairs, says learning plans are a work in progress. “Using diverse forms of assessment allows us to assess a wider variety of skills, knowledge and competencies.” The university is orientating lecturers this semester on the new standing orders.  

Roger De Mello Koch, a fourth-year electrical engineering student, agrees that assessment needs to be enhanced especially for online examination, saying multiple choice does not allow students to show understanding of a concept.  

Wits implemented the blended learning programme after two years of remote teaching and learning due to the covid-19 pandemic. Grayson says the main problem with remote learning was students and lecturers became isolated. Brett Freeman, a lecturer in the school of mechanical, industrial and aeronautical engineering, agrees: “You don’t grow as a person socially if you [are] sitting in your bedroom listening to lectures.”  

Students sitting and standing in a full SH6 lecture hall during in-person lectures. Photo: Aarti Bhana

Students who experienced in-person, remote and blended learning agreed that the lack of social interaction hampered their learning. De Mello Koch says online lecturing results in less engagement because students are not forced to engage with the material as at an in-person lecture.  

Computer science honours student, Sonia Bullah, believes the blended learning programme needs to be developed further to assist with revision.  “It would be really beneficial to record in-person lectures and post them online later,” she says. 

Both De Mello Koch and Bullah said students of the future should always look to ask for help if they do not understand a concept. De Mello Koch adds: “Often other students can provide more clarity on something you are struggling with as they will explain it in a different way that may make more sense.”  

FEATURED IMAGE: Second year chemical engineering student works through a blended learning lab. Photo: Colin Hugo 

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Wits changing society for good

‘Wits for Good’ is about advancing social change and innovation, or is it? 

Wits University is using its ‘Wits for Good’ slogan to attempt to change society through innovation and research. In 2019 the slogan was changed from ‘Wits gives you the edge’ to ‘Wits for good’ to represent the university’s achievements over the last century of its existence. 

The university’s head of marketing Ferna Clarkson says: “It differentiates who we are and what we stand for creating new knowledge to advance humanity which ensures that we leave things better than when we found them.”

For Wits to continue playing a leading role in solving global crises and advancing social justice it must find other funding sources, including donations. Peter Maher, the director of the Wits Alumni Relations Office says, “It’s just the reality that we have, we can’t offer free education because then we’re going to bankrupt the university and that’s not going to benefit anyone, and the tax base can’t afford to fund universities fully.”

Peter Bezuidenhout, director of the Wits Advancement, Development and Fundraising Office (DFO) says; “The university creates a vast range of skills for this economy. Sure, these graduates go out and get jobs, but they are doing jobs for good.” 

Dr Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi, Dr Thokozani Mathebula, and Dr Sarah Godsell, who are lecturers at the Wits School of Education wrote an article which appeared in the  Daily Maverick in 2021 titled ‘Wits. For Good’ – For whose good, exactly?’. 

In it, they argue that the ‘good’ is not a public good, but rather a market good for those privileged students with easy access to online learning and who are willing to ignore those outside market-oriented universities. 

Chair of Theoretical Particle Cosmology at Wits School of Physics, Professor Vishnu Jejjala, says that teaching and research are public goods since teaching produces an educated middle class, and research lets the university explore the world in new ways. This role is vital for society to understand better where and how they live. 

Therefore, the role of higher education in South Africa is not merely to churn out research that adorns the bookshelves of the intelligentsia, to be proudly displayed during Zoom calls, or to produce jobless graduates. It’s true function is to transform society and create a space for the coming together of classes, generations, and innovative ideas.  

“Wits for Good (stands for) the greater good of society by enriching young minds and helping nurture young African talent, I think that’s important, and we’re proud to be a part of that legacy,” says Constant Beckrling, a Wits alumnus 

Wits university boasts a proud legacy of producing some of Africa’s most remarkable minds advancing societies globally. According to the latest global university rankings by Cybermetrics Lab Wits is the second highest ranked university on the continent. The university continues to set a high standard for today’s Witsies, ensuring that their excellence inspires future generations. 

“Wits For Good means that it’s something that’s gonna be a part of life, that’s gonna carry me throughout and once a Witsie is always gonna be a Witsie!” says Vidhya Patel, a first-year student studying BSc in Biological Science.  

The university is continuing its eternal legacy as a towering African institution  to transform society for what it perceives as ‘good’.

FEATURED IMAGE: The Wits for Good billboards and posters are plastered on walls and highways across Johannesburg, this one is on the side of the New Commerce Building on West Campus. Photo: Colin Hugo

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Covid-19 met its match in the Wits edge 

From manufacturing PPE to setting up vaccine trials, teams of Witsies were up to the task of fighting the global pandemic.

While nearly the whole country was in lockdown in 2020, with people too scared to even step outside for a morning jog, Wits professors, doctors, researchers and students came together to fight the virus that had the whole world at a standstill. Backed by the university, these Witsies contributed in manufacturing much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE), setting up the first site in South Africa for vaccine trials, launching a dashboard to track the virus, and developing treatment plans for those infected with covid.  

With cases spreading across the country, Professor Bruce Mellado of the Wits school of physics, and a number of volunteers from different disciplines, launched the Covid-19 South African Dashboard in March 2020. This dashboard not only helped track and visualise the ever-changing virus throughout Africa but could predict its spread and severity. “The website at its peak was used by many health care professionals, government officials, companies […] The site used to get about 10 000 hits daily,” said Mellado. 

A shortage of PPE was one of the biggest issues during the first covid wave. This forced those working in hospitals, clinics and emergency services to wash and reuse equipment, when typically they would have discarded it. Cue Dr Randall Paton, senior lecturer at the Wits school of mechanical, industrial and aeronautical engineering.  

In April 2020 Paton and his team, which included staff and students from the faculties of engineering and health sciences, occupational health and safety unit and the campus health and wellness centre, started producing laser-made face shields for hospital and emergency service staff by the tens of thousands, for distribution across the country.  

Calling this project one of the “most human moments” he had ever experienced, Paton said, “It was meaningful to be a part of a project that included so many people. Everyone did what they could to make the inflexible flexible.” A Wits Vuvuzela article about this project, reported that over R100 000 was raised to make this initiative possible. 

One of the biggest contributions made by Wits in fighting the pandemic was when Professor Jeremy Nel, a lecturer in internal medicine, and Professor Helen Rees, executive director of the Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, teamed up with the World Health Organisation to form the South African branch of the Solidarity trials, the only one in Africa. The trial assessed a range of drugs being used to treat patients with covid. Nel said that “The Solidarity trial was very well received and has added some very important information on therapeutics worldwide.”  

This collaboration resulted in findings about the most effective use of Remdesivir, which continues to be a very popular antiviral drug to treat covid. “The trial also helped provide definitive evidence against early candidates like Chloroquine, which allowed us to move on to more promising candidates,” said Nel.  

The university’s ground-breaking contributions continued with the first vaccine trials in South Africa which were led by vaccinologist, Professor Shabir Madhi. By August 2020 Wits had two vaccine trials underway, the Oxford trial for AstraZeneca and the Novavax trial. 

An honourable mention must be given to the Wits community of doctors and medical students, who were going through their clinical training at the height of the pandemic. As reported in Wits Vuvuzela, healthcare workers stationed at Charlette Maxeke and Chris Hani Baragwanath hospitals battled wave after wave of covid, putting their own lives at risk, to save lives.  

Superman and Spiderman have nothing on the edge that inspired these brilliant Witsies. They gave their time, resources, and specialties to help tackle one of the deadliest pandemics. They have indeed helped set the tone for what Wits is cable of in the next 100 years.   

FEATURED IMAGE: Witsies came out on top in the fight against covid-19. Photo: File

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Research excellence exemplified in Bt30 study 

A study that lasted so long it saw the transition from pencils and paper to intelligent data and code programming, celebrates a massive feat with the launch of a book.

Africa’s largest and longest running birth cohort, the Birth Till 30 (Bt30) study, has tracked the lives of over 3 000 people born in South Africa for 30 years. Professor Linda Richter, one of its co-founders detailed the fascinating study and its findings in a book released on August 19, 2022.   

Birth to Thirty: A Study as Ambitious as the Country We Wanted to Create, is a book that details the intended 10-year study of the health and development of children born in Soweto, Johannesburg during the politically turbulent 1990’s. It has now published over 270 papers, employed several staff members for more than 25 years and collected more than 20 million raw data points on close to 2 000 individuals over 22 data collection waves between birth and adulthood.  

 

Speaking at the launch at the Wits Origins Centre, Richter, a Wits Professor and the director of the Organisational Unit, DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development, said: “The study is known throughout the world as a highly valued source of longitudinal social and biological data.”  

Some of the study’s major findings in Richter’s book include only 1% of children in the sample having not witnessed or experienced any form of violence, while close to half experienced or witnessed violence at home, school and in their community. Sexual violence was experienced across all ages in the cohort’s lives. They also found by age 28 that about a third of men and women reported that they either physically abuse or are abused in their intimate relationships. 

According to Richter the most striking scientific findings proved that: “Physical growth, cognitive capacity, and mental health can all be tracked from parents, through to early childhood and into the adult years, as well as inter-generationally.” 

Some of the most prevalent finings were in areas such as unemployment, secondary education, substance use and welfare. Graphic: Elishevah Bome

The study saw that the wellbeing of the Bt30 generation has been boosted during the past 30 years. For example, Bt30 women are taller than their mothers, on average by one centimetre. More than half passed matric, whereas only a quarter of their mothers did, and more Bt30 women live in households with consumer goods such as a car, refrigerator and washing machine. However, Bt30 women unlike their mothers, had their first pregnancy before the age of 18. They also smoke and drink alcohol, feel overwhelmed by debt, and report intimate partner violence and depression.  

Barbra Monyepote, who was with the project since its conception, detailed how many of the research assistants were new to the field and not very familiar with medical research. She told Wits Vuvuzela about the difficulties she faced in missing family events when working long hours and weekends. Complications when it came to language and navigating Soweto, were also common “but at last we got it right” she said.  

Boitumelo Molete, a participant in the study, said “The study was part of my childhood and upbringing.” She has been through countless x-rays, blood tests and questioners. “I discovered the importance of research at a very young age, I ended up taking this as a profession and thoroughly enjoy it.”  

Richter’s main motivation in writing this book is ”to affirm the experiences of the participants, contributing to their memories, and ensure that they, their families and their children know what a significant study Bt30 is”.  

FEATURED IMAGE:  Birth to Thirty: A Study as Ambitious as the Country We Wanted to Create, was released on August 19, 2022. The book details the Bt30 study. Photo: Supplied

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