Ian Mckay

International Geoscience Education Organisation

Honorary Awards

Award presented in Shimane, Japan, 2022

Introduction by Tanja Reinhardt


Tribute to Ian McKay – a colleague and a friend

Dr Ian McKay, born 22 March 1963, passed away on 13 July following a sudden heart attack. From very early on in life, Ian developed a love of life sciences and this passion became his career. Ian completed a BSc at the University of the Witwatersrand, majoring in Zoology with sub-majors in Geology and Genetics. He completed a BSc Honours in Zoology at Wits with a major project on fossil insects from the Orapa Crater Lake deposits. He went on to complete an MSc (with distinction) and this was later upgraded to a PhD on carabid beetles and the palaeoenvironment of the Orapa deposit, which he completed in 1990.

Ian subsequently worked for the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, undertaking research on ticks and discovering two new species. During this time, he realised that he had a calling for science communication and education, so he successfully enrolled for a Higher Diploma in Education at Wits. This led him to be appointed a science/environmental education specialist for the RADMASTE Centre associated with the University of the Witwatersrand. He led a programme in environmental education, writing science curriculum support materials, presenting courses on environmental education, and working on various special projects, one of which was to develop a low-cost test kit for water quality testing. It was at this point in his career that I first met Ian and we have enjoyed a long and successful association since then. His enthusiasm and his willingness to engage with others in anything related to science education in general, and his commitment to geoscience education in particular, was infectious and challenging. I share just some of the many engagements that Ian and I shared over the years……

Ian joined the School of Geosciences after RADMASTE as a ‘shared’ outreach officer with Palaeosciences, and he and Matt Kitching (also deceased) would rope me in to pull samples and to prepare the ‘erupting volcano’ – Ian was always very adamant that we should pull samples that were shiny and that sparkled! Thanks to his involvement with numerous feeder schools, we had many school children and teachers visit our Bleloch Museum in the School of Geosciences at Wits.

Between 2001 and 2014 Ian managed geoscience/palaeoscience outreach in the School for Geoscience at Wits University. Here he was tasked to raise sufficient funding to undertake the work and to support his salary. Accordingly, he set up the company ITM Development Education Services with the mission to facilitate development through out-of-the-box thinking, fundraising, conscientious project management, and the communication of technical information in plain language using entertaining and interactive techniques. In 2014 he was appointed education and outreach officer by the newly established DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences. In this capacity, he operated nationally but was based at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

While involved in Geo and Palaeoscience outreach at Wits, he performed many functions, including school curriculum analysis and liaison with the Education Department and the DST (now DSI). During this time, Ian was instrumental in establishing a larger working group of academics, teachers, GSSA member, and Industry to collaborate in compiling what we believed would be the ideal ‘geology or geosciences curriculum’ so that learners could do Geosciences at school level (as is possible in a number of countries worldwide)….and initiative linked to what was initially referred to as the South African Curriculum 2005 and 2010 projects. The positive of these numerous and lengthy meetings was the introduction of “Earth and Space” into the school curriculum but the negative was that geology or geosciences is still not a stand-alone school subject. Ian enjoyed much greater success regarding the introduction of evolution and palaeontology into the National South African school curriculum for Grades 10 – 12. To introduce this new topic, Ian was responsible for delivering workshops on evolution and palaeontology for subject advisors from eight of the nine South African provinces to assist teachers. He also designed educational programmes, museum exhibits, created hands-on biology and geoscience courses, trained student guides to present tours and designed holiday science programmes.

When Wits hosted the Geological Society of South Africa’s annual Geocongress, he suggested working together to host a special Geoscience Education Symposium. In preparation for the session we compiled a ‘teacher workbook’ on the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens that served as a basis for interdisciplinary approaches for teaching different school subjects using an integrated Geoscience Education approach. Ahead of the Geocongress, we visited the Botanical Gardens to develop the workbook. One of my lasting memories of that time spent in compiling the workbook was when we climbed up the stairs adjacent to the waterfall….we came to the platform from where the public could view black eagles that nested in the cliffs adjacent to the waterfall. There was a big sign that read “How to enjoy your eagles”, followed by a list of do’s and don’t’s. Ian looked at the sign and said…. “and I thought the answer was with salt and pepper”. Anyone who knew Ian, will remember is dry and whacky sense of humor. This was the cementing of a tremendous working relationship

Ian was later the driver in hosting a GeoSciEd VI conference in South Africa. He compiled and delivered our bid at the GeoSciEd V conference and did such a good job that we were able to host GeoSciEd VI at Wits in 2010. This was a major coup for the Southern Hemisphere, for South Africa and for Wits. This was where Tanja Reinhardt joined us in a big way and we went from being the “terrible 2”, to being the “3 Musketeers”. This was the birth of the Geoscience Education Association (GEA) of South Africa, the small team that organized GeoSciEd VI. This event was the first to really engage SA academics in concepts associated with geoscience education, concepts such as “Earth Systems Science”. The conference also exposed postgraduates to the potential of introducing geoscience education as a possible branch of geology and geography. This is something that is currently in the discussion and planning stages at Wits.

Also under the umbrella of IGEO is the annual Geosciences Olympiad. At the GeoSciEd conference in Hyderabad, India, we suggested the development of an international textbook to support learners to take part in the Geoscience Olympiad, and Tanja developed one of the chapters on Mineralogy and Ian was involved in aspects of editing. Unfortunately SA has not been able to send a team of school learners to participate in the Geosciences Olympiad. However, Ian was a long way down the line to ensuring that in the not too distant future we would be in a position to send a team to participate. Regrettably, his dreams were not achieved in his lifetime, but the excellent foundation that he laid will no doubt lead to our eventual participation in the not too distant future.

Ian also supervised postgraduates and served as an examiner of theses. He was in fact marking a thesis which he took with him to hospital when his doctor admitted him.

Despite all that Ian was involved in in terms of Geoscience Education and Outreach, he was also a devoted dad and a loving husband. Ian will be sorely missed. He had such a “can do” attitude and he “did it” in such a gentle and positive way. Only a few weeks before he passed away, Ian and I met to discuss ways of revitalizing our various geoscience outreach initiatives and of redeveloping our Bleloch Museum into the envisioned Earth Exploratorium. In this regard I, as an individual, will surely miss Ian. Indeed, he was a colleague and a friend.

When I notified IGEO members that Ian had passed away, the number of messages received was a measure of the amazing impact Ian had had at the national and International levels. Many tributes were shared and all of them commented on his passion, dedication, commitment and of course….his unique and whacky sense of humor. It is such a privilege to honour Ian at this Assembly. Geoscience Educators in South Africa look forward to handing his IGEO certificate to Tracey, Ian’s wife. Be assures that we will do all we can to continue the great work that Ian pioneered here in South Africa.