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Getting Underneath South Africa’s Mineral Wealth

More than three-quarters of South Africa's energy comes from coal. Credit: Ed Mathez.

Our teaching workshop continued Tuesday with a lecture about mineral resources and their economic importance. South Africa has abundant platinum and gold but also lesser-known elements like vanadium, chromium, and manganese. Vanadium and chromium, important to the steel industry, are found predominantly in the Bushveld Complex where our research is focused. Chromium gives steel much of its strength while vanadium stabilizes it to prevent expansion and contraction, allowing oil pipelines in Alaska and Russia, for instance, to resist cracking during extreme temperature swings.

Later that day I gave lectures on the formation of coal and gold, two of South Africa’s leading resources. The country gets more than 75 percent of its energy from coal and more than 40 percent of the gold mined on Earth has come from the Witwatersrand deposit near Johannesburg. Some estimate that more than 50 percent of the world’s reserves still remain here. In fact, the discovery of the ‘Rand’ deposit is what led to Johannesburg’s founding. The South African currency, the rand, is named for this gold deposit.

The teachers seemed to especially appreciate Chris Emdin’s discussion of how to engage students in the classroom–here students are called “learners” – to explore the material on their own terms. South Africa has 11 official languages. While all formal education and exams are done in English, English is almost never the student’s first language. This makes science especially challenging to teach. Chris showed the teachers one activity for helping students translate vocabulary words across English, science, their native language and slang. This way the students can incorporate the words they hear in class into their lives.

During the morning session one teacher told me that he had gone through five textbooks the night before searching for text on plumes, or hot spots. My lecture the previous day had discussed how islands like Hawaii, Iceland, and Reunion – off the coast of Madagascar – form from magma rising deep from Earth’s mantle. The teacher told me that in Afrikaans there is no word for “plume” and that none of his textbooks included it. He asked me for a definition and some pictures and said he would approach the Afrikaans textbook publishers in Johannesburg about including the term in their next editions.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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