12 August 2020 | Story Thabo Kessah | Photo Supplied
Dr Maria Tsakeni’s position affords her the opportunity to forge a better future for the next generation as far as education and schooling are concerned.

Dr Maria Tsakeni is passionate about innovation and science in education. This is as a result of her poor upbringing, where she learnt to work with very few resources, as well as realities faced by her maternal grandmother. Her current position affords her the opportunity to forge a better future for the next generation as far as education and schooling are concerned. She believes the most important qualities are the ability to solve problems, keep motivated, work hard work, and tenacity. Her recent achievements include awards in Research in Learning and Teaching and Innovation in Learning and Teaching. 

Please tell us about yourself: Who you are and what you do? 

I am a senior lecturer and Science teacher/ educator in the School of Mathematics, Natural Sciences and Technology Education on the Qwaqwa Campus. I started my career as a Chemistry teacher (Cuban trained), studied further for an MEd in Chemistry at the University of Zimbabwe, and later obtained my PhD in Science Education at the University of Pretoria in 2015. I joined the UFS as a postdoctoral fellow in 2015 and began my journey as a researcher. I have an NRF-funded project (Thuthuka NRF-rating track) and am therefore working towards NRF rating and/or an associate professorship. 

My research focus is on curriculum innovations and innovative instructional strategies in science education through preservice science teacher preparation and school classroom practices. Innovations include inquiry-based learning (IBL), education for sustainable development (ESD), STEM education, and virtual learning environments (VLE), with a special focus on implementation in multiple-deprived classrooms. I am also interested in researching school improvement through Science and Mathematics education during my time as a postdoctoral fellow, and I continue to be a collaborator to the unit that hosted me, which is the SANRAL Chair in the Faculty of Education at the UFS. 

Is there a woman who inspires you and who you would like to celebrate this Women’s Month, and why?

I am inspired by a sad story that my late maternal grandmother told me, which happened to her as a young girl in the late 1940s. She was forced out of school where she was doing very well, because she was told it was time to honour a marriage that had been arranged for her. It broke her heart at the time, and I also feel the pain that she felt. It makes me realise how privileged I am to have an opportunity to pursue my dreams and make a difference beyond my family obligations as a woman. Therefore, for every small achievement in my career, I say ‘this is for you grandma’. This Women’s Month, I celebrate my grandmother and many other women like her who sacrificed their dreams of pursuing different kinds of careers in order to serve others.  

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your life that have made you a better woman?

I grew up and went to school in a very poor township, so I learned quite early to work with very few resources, or no resources at all. I realised that the most important resource is the ability to solve problems, keep motivated, hard work, and tenacity.  

What advice would you give to the 15-year-old you?

I would tell the 15-year-old me not to doubt herself and be less of an introvert, because there are many people out there who believe in her and think that she has potential.

What would you say makes you a champion woman [of the UFS]?

I think that being a champion is not about being better than other people, but about doing and being your best in every situation. It is about being prepared to go the extra mile, being a good colleague, and about developing a unique and special set of skills such as non-routine problem solving and people skills. These skills are handy when you have to perform unfamiliar and challenging tasks.

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