Bringing scientists and teachers together for the Cape Town GIFT workshop

Bringing scientists and teachers together for the Cape Town GIFT workshop

Many teachers follow path writ by a particular diction, which reads “lifelong learning”. There is no other way, actually, to keep track of all of these fast changing issues and challenges of today’s world, which, in many ways, touch geoscientific topics (climate change, food security, geopolitics, to name but a few). Consequently many teachers are eager to learn from science as much as they can in order to be able to teach their students well. And, on top of that, to spark an interest in geosciences in their classrooms, which, in turn, may lead to more high school students to later pick up geoscientific studies at universities worldwide.

How EGU cares for teachers

Discovering tide pools during a field trip in GIFT Cape Town, 2022

The European Geosciences Union, at their inauguration meeting in Nice 2002, founded an “Education Committee” (EC), actually the oldest committee still standing under the roof of EGU today. Every year since 2003 the EC has organised Geosciences Information for Teachers (GIFT) workshops. These are normally two-and-a-half-day teacher enhancement workshops held in conjunction with EGU’s annual General Assembly in Vienna, Austria. There, selected top-level scientists working in the Earth, space and planetary sciences offer the invited teachers talks centred on a different theme every year. Teachers are also provided with teaching strategies and activities related to the theme. While these workshops generally cater to geoscience teachers in secondary education, quite a few selected primary teachers have taken part as well.

Over the years, more than 2000 teachers from over 50 countries, mostly from Europe, but also from China, Japan, Mexico, Malaysia, and the USA, were invited to the GIFT workshops in Austria. Very soon teachers began to apply for second participation slots at the workshops and started to form networks beyond their national borders. With so many teachers wanting more access to cutting edge research experience, the European GIFT concept became international, with the EC helping to organise workshops at different locations worldwide.

In 2010, the first GIFT workshop in connection with an EGU Alexander von Humboldt Conference took place in Merida, Mexico. The EGU Education Committee then teamed up with UNESCO to take the GIFT workshop idea to Africa. The first EGU-UNESCO GIFT workshop took place at the African Earth Observatory Network at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in partnership with the African Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science. Some 40 teachers from all over South Africa attended this workshop on climate change and human adaptation. In the years to come, out-of-Europe GIFT workshops were organized in Penang (Malaysia), again in Merida (Mexico), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Cape Town (South Africa) with overwhelming success.

Building capacities

Teachers discussing the scientific presentations at the Iziko Museum, Cape Town, 2022

To further increase the impact of our “out-of-Vienna” activities, a new type of EGU GIFT workshop is now offered to teachers on a “capacity-building” basis. Funding is provided on a sliding scale over a three-year time span, with close to full funding given in the first year, declining progressively until the third year. The aim of these series of workshops is to transfer the achievements we have obtained with the GIFT workshops at the EGU General Assembly to different countries worldwide (South Africa being the spearhead so far), and encourage the input of successful educational approaches developed in these countries. Next year the third workshop of this new series will be held in Cape Town again.


So what does a typical workshop of this series look like? To provide the participants with as much usable content as possible, these workshops always offer a mixture between scientific presentations on the one hand, to shorten the path between lab and classroom, and hands-on activities on the other hand. In addition, we try to add visits to learning sites for a true out-of-classroom experience, like the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, or, as is the case in Cape Town, to exhibitions of the Iziko Museums of South Africa or the Two Oceans Aquarium on the Waterfront.

Workshops in Cape Town – So far, so good

Group picture in front of the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, 2022

In 2016 and 2017 the GIFT workshops in Cape Town, were associated with larger scientific conferences, such as the 35th International Geological Congress (2016) and the IAMAS-IAPSO-IAGA conference (2017). To create a stand-alone workshop series to be conducted and financed by locals on an annual basis, the long-standing Chairman and founder of the EC, Carlo Laj, began to draft the idea of a new type of workshop, which later became known as a “Capacity Building Workshop”, a term coined by EGU Treasurer Patric Jacobs. The financial contribution on behalf of EGU was planned to decrease year by year to give way to an entirely locally financed and organized workshop. Originally meant to last for a four-year-cycle, the turmoil of the Covid19 pandemic changed plans significantly. The series was cut short to a three-years-cycle, and eventually begun in 2022.

Exploring our Oceans” was the main theme in this first workshop, strongly supported by the Iziko Museum – which remain our generous host until this day – the Geological Society of South Africa, and

Westermann Publishers from Germany. Teachers learned about South Africa’s marine biodiversity and resources, the thermohaline circulation, and also the effect of pollution on the beaches. They got an overview over the scientific resources at The Iziko Museum and the Two Oceans Aquarium, sided by a field trip to beach pools along the coastline and a beach cleaning exercise.

In 2023 the theme “Water in Space and Time” taught us some interesting details about water in the solar system, the origin of life in the oceans, and the specific properties of the water in the oceans and on land. We met well renowned authors of field guides and teaching units and worked with them in numerous hands-on activities. Our scientific partners came from the Iziko Museum itself, the Two Oceans Aquarium, and the University of Cape Town.

Plans for 2024

Next year’s workshop is planned for August 10/11, 2024. In the best of cases, it is going to be associated with the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, which only takes place every four years. The venue is going to be the Iziko Museum again. Our idea is to try to link the workshop to an international conference for the first time. While in the past most of out-of-Vienna workshops have been linked to conferences, the capacity building series generally is meant to be self-sufficient. Yet, we will find out how we can make best use of the specialists already present in Cape Town. This will help us even further in our pledge for the Cape Town GIFT to become a capacity-built, self-sufficient workshop entity.

Teachers from underprivileged rural areas and townships around Cape Town are our main target audience. They are provided with travel grants that pay for their commute between their hometown and the Iziko Museum in downtown Cape Town. We also pay for food during the day (including soft drinks and coffee, lots of coffee…), the teachers in addition receive a goodie bag with an atlas, writing pad, pen, clipboard, and everything we can lay our hands on. Finally, the workshop itself is free, including the costs for bus field trips or the entrance to the Aquarium. From 2025 onwards local sponsors will support the workshop, ensuring a smooth transition between EGU involvement and the self-sufficient future of the local GIFT; exactly what we had hoped for.

Editor’s note: if you are interested in organising a Geoscience education event, calls are now open for EGU-sponsored Field School for Teachers or Geoscience Education Events: 

Friedrich Barnikel works at a high school in Munich, Germany, where he teaches Geography, History and English. In addition, he serves as an Educational Coordinator for Geography for the municipal schools in Munich. In 2003 he obtained his PhD for his studies on natural hazards in the Alps. He has edited several books with teaching units for Geography and numerous papers on natural hazards, spatial orientation and didactics. Since 2002 he is also a member of the Education Committee of EGU.

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