OP-ED

Little Einsteins: We need a science, technology, engineering and maths revolution in South Africa’s schools

By Jeshika Ramchund and Zaid Railoun 21 January 2021

(Illustrative image | Sources: Gallo Images / Sydney Shivambu | Rawpixel | Pngtree | Flickr)

We need more ‘little Einsteins’ — children at primary school level who will carry the torch of 4IR into subsequent revolutions. But this generation runs the risk of being left behind if high-quality mathematics and science at school level are not prioritised.

South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) tackles four broad challenges: unemployment, inequality, poverty and sustaining socioeconomic inclusion. We have recognised that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will be the driver of the changes we want to embrace in an inclusive South Africa. To achieve this, there needs to be a dramatic change in our education system and in the prioritisation of basic quality infrastructure that will be the backbone of our Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and subsequent revolutions in South Africa.

We talk of leapfrogging technologies, but while we wish for this to be our trajectory, this is not a reality for many South Africans. Covid-19 has shown us that the ability to problem-solve is now even more imperative in a fast-paced world and it needs to happen radically. While we have debated this at length, our future-readiness for industry 4IR must be seriously addressed since there is no silver bullet for the creation of this enabling environment.

We propose some thoughts on how an enabling environment can be created:

We have made great strides on the tertiary education and academic fronts, but we have left behind our “little Einsteins” — children at primary school levels who will contribute to the pipeline of STEM and carry the torch of 4IR into subsequent revolutions. This generation also runs the risk of being left behind if high-quality mathematics and science at the school level are not prioritised. We need to go back to basics and bring in technology at the school level and this will integrate organically into our society.

A good example of an inspiring school that is investing in their little Einsteins is Somerset College in the Winelands area of the Western Cape. Their ESTEAM (Entrepreneurship, Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) Centre opened in 2019 and since then has been one of the most revolutionised education systems we have experienced. The college also believes in the core values of contribution in sharing their privilege with the wider community through their social responsibility programme in the Winelands area.

The second is impactful public-private sector partnerships (PPP) which are seen as the best means for the continuous room for growth in the STEM playing field. Ideas need to move from plans, strategies, and pilot projects to scalable and commercially viable solutions with very high technology readiness levels, and to encourage entrepreneurship and create an enabling environment for science and engineering start-ups to scale sustainably.

We cannot grow this at the grassroots levels without a shake-up of how STEM skills and technology are currently procured. We need to move away from purely financially driven outcomes to quality and value-driven ones. Programmes need to be robust, needs-driven, continuous, sustainable and able to attract the best talent into STEM fields, irrespective of the social class or gap.

We need to take our policies to implementation at the grassroots level with a multi-stakeholder approach. This is a cross-cutting challenge in AI, digitisation and practical implementation of renewable energy and smart cities. What we need is the fostering of collaboration that moves us to a more equal society. If the ambition to create employment at scale is to be realised, we need to make STEM and entrepreneurship a primary choice by the best and brightest in South Africa and Africa.

Importantly though, we need to be inclusive about the sector (from an age, race and gender perspective at the very least) so that we harness the best human capital to leverage the best technology. This includes a holistic promotion of STEM to be representative of the needs of the country. Technology must be appropriate and adopted for our people and their benefit rather than at them.

Attention must be paid to how we address the challenges of urbanisation. Considering informal settlements for example, how can such settlements be digitised in the absence of basic services? How do we close the technology and knowledge gap that exists between learners in private schools and those at public schools? How do we envisage the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in these instances? An overhaul and streamlining of planning and coordination efforts will ensure the prioritisation of a sustainability mindset.

We must acknowledge the mammoth challenges ahead of us, but we also need to ensure that systems and policies are relevant to the triple-bottom-line and to securing the STEM pipeline for us to thrive in the Fourth (and subsequent) Industrial Revolution. When the environment is enabling, the deployment of 4IR technologies will happen organically. DM

Jeshika Ramchund is a professional engineer, NEF Ambassador for South Africa and the Champion of the Energy & Infrastructure Focus Area in the NEF Community of Scientists. Zaid Railoun is a water research scientist at the Investment Fund Africa looking at water infrastructure in Africa that is aligned to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

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  • Dear Jeshica and Zaid. Thank you for engaging in this important debate. You both seem focussed and keen to make this happen. May I suggest that you use your involvement in the science field to to bring real-world science that solves social and community development challenges to schools. Principals are always ready to bring inspirational experiences to their children. The best age to target is upper-primary, as it’s then that many top scientists claim they found their inspiration (see ’10 times Michio Kaku blew our minds’ )

  • I write as the father of two gifted children who are now well into adulthood and their chosen professions, but most importantly as the grandfather of an exceptionally gifted grand daughter, whose IQ has been assessed by an independent expert at 149+. She and the others like her are jewels this country cannot afford not to develop to their fullest extent. She is 12 and is starting grade 8, having skipped grade 3 and is top of her grade at a prestigious private school (not a bursary student). But she is bored. Our eldest gifted child had the huge benefit of the Schmerenbeck Cente at Wits when he was 6 and 7 and 8. He glowed. Our granddaughter, and all like her is a special needs child, with staggering potential. She is very well rounded actively pursuing every dramatic arts opportunity that comes her way, and she dances. In order for her and those like her to be enriched, I propose that the university’s education departments each set up facilities, which cannot cost much, to receive these special needs children and enrich and develop them. A lot is justifiably spent on children with learning problems. But those at the other end of the spectrum need special care as well.

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