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Young scientists power up Mzansi teens to harness maths and science to turn everyday problems into businesses

Young scientists power up Mzansi teens to harness maths and science to turn everyday problems into businesses
From left: Pupil Milton Makgothoma says that to get the most out of Nka’Thuto EduPropeller, youngsters need to be willing to learn. || Nka’Thuto EduPropeller founder Thulile Khanyile. || Tshepiso Malema runs a gaming facility and credits Nka’Thuto EduPropeller for his entrepreneurial flair. (Photos: Supplied)

From power generation to recycling, no task is too big for these youngsters to tackle, and some of their ideas have been turned into viable businesses.

South Africa has many challenges – from constant power cuts and a lack of recreational facilities in townships, to illegal dumping sites – but award-winning scientist and academic Thulile Khanyile’s NGO, Nka’Thuto EduPropeller, gives high school children the tools to think about solving them.

The NGO operates in a country where children often perform dismally in maths and science, which makes it all the more valuable. For instance, in the International Mathematics and Science Study, released in 2019, South Africa ranked consistently low in maths and science.

But that hasn’t deterred Khanyile and her co-founder of Nka’Thuto EduPropeller, scientist Thandeka Mhlanga, from equipping school children from low-income communities with the necessary tools to be innovative using science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM subjects).

Nka’Thuto EduPropeller runs programmes with more than 400 children in Gauteng, Limpopo, Free State, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. Since it was registered in 2017 it has reached more than 4,500 pupils.

Khanyile emphasised the importance of relaying academic knowledge in layman’s terms so that the general public can understand the value of STEM subjects and how they affect their lives.

Khanyile is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand and Mhlanga is a young female scientist, originally from Mpumalanga. Both scientists were previously employed at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Investing in Stem education and building scientific capacity is critical for Africa

“The learners are asked to find a problem in their community and find a solution for it using science and technology. Learners are taught about business concepts, research methodology and how to turn their ideas into viable businesses,” said Khanyile.

Nka’Thuto EduPropeller also hosts innovation expos for youngsters to showcase their projects.

Before Tshepiso Malema (19), from Ivory Park, an informal settlement near Midrand, joined Nka’Thuto EduPropeller, he didn’t care much for school and thought the NGO was only for “kids who are geniuses”.

“But someone got a laptop from winning a competition [from Nka’Thuto EduPropeller] and I thought it wouldn’t be too bad to try it out,” Malema said with a chuckle.

He soon realised it was more than just science. “It was about solving the everyday problems we have by being innovative and using science and technology.”

For an expo in 2019, Malema and a friend focused on generating electricity using saltwater. The projects were judged on research and viability. That year the pair were among the top 30 techpreneurs, which enabled them to attend a boot camp where they were taught more about how to run a business.

Malema and his teammate won the regional round and the prize was a laptop, which he later used to start his current business, Gamer’s Territory, when he was 16, running games on his laptop for friends to play.

“You know, in the townships there aren’t that many places where you can go play games and many people don’t have PlayStations, so I saw that gap and opened up a gaming facility,” he said.

Malema credits Nka’Thuto EduPropeller for giving him the skills to start his entrepreneurial journey.

Waste not

Another pupil, Prudence Msunga, said that in her hometown on the East Rand illegal dumping was a huge problem, which led to her pitching a smart bin collector for the innovation expo.

“The electro-eco-friendly dustbin separates recyclable and non-recyclable things. You can throw anything inside the bin, except glass because that will break it. The bin squashes everything and separates the waste into recyclable and non-recyclable waste. It even has a detector to inform the user when it’s done squashing the waste,” explained Msunga.

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

“The recyclable waste can then be sold for money and non-recyclable things like food could be turned into manure.”

Msunga’s bin hasn’t been commercialised yet, but Khanyile said there were a number of projects that had been, including a water leak detection system and a holographic teacher.

So, what do you need as a young person who is interested in creating a product in the STEM industry? Lindokuhle Sibeko from Vosloorus, who was among the first cohort of youngsters to join Nka’Thuto EduPropeller in 2017, said “you have to be willing to learn, especially when you’re being judged on your project”.

“You also need to be passionate about the problem you’re trying to solve. If you’re not passionate about it, then you’re going to struggle to come up with the right answers,” said Sibeko. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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