Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM subjects, are at the heart of the newly revised curriculum of the South African education system. Experts have highlighted the strategic significance of these subjects in helping the country to accelerate the roll-out of key infrastructure projects in the underdeveloped communities.
The subjects also equip learners with the requisite 4th Industrial Revolution skills which will enable them to compete on equal footing with their global counterparts.
Addressing the Education Lekgotla in Birchwood, east of Johannesburg last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa said exposing learners to these subjects early on will empower them to perform better in international tests which promote reading comprehension, mathematics and science.
He called on the department of basic education (DBE) to ensure more children across the country pursue and excel in the STEM subjects. “Without quality basic education, our country cannot grow and develop, we cannot redress the injustices of the past, and we cannot build a socially cohesive nation,” Ramaphosa noted.
Gauteng department of education (GDE) has heeded the call to promote STEM subjects in its schools. It has launched ‘Schools of Specialisation’ programme as part of its grand plan of investing in and encouraging learners to take part in subjects that equip them with technical skills.
Some of the schools opened under the programme include, among others:
- St Barnabas High School and UJ Metropolitan High School which specialise in Mathematics, Science, and ICT. They teach learners basic IT literacy, computer programming and robotics.
- Soshanguve Engineering School, which focuses on automotive with BMW as a major partner.
- Curtis Nkondo School of Specialisation situated in Soweto, which specialises in Engineering Graphics and Design, IT and mechanical, civil or electrical engineering.
Not only do learners in these schools benefits from the industry expertise but they also receive practical and quality tuition in well-equipped and state-of-the-art facilities.
The DBE must also forge strategic partnerships and leverage the existing scientific and technological knowledge to deepen and raise awareness among learners about the importance of pursuing STEM subjects. CSIR, which is synonymous with cutting-edge industrial and scientific research and has blazed the trail in areas of technological innovations, is one such organisation.
On Monday CSIR turned 75 and Dr. Blade Nzimande, minister of higher education and training and innovation, hailed it for the achievements it recorded since it was formed. “We are proud of what the CSIR has achieved in the past 75 years through science, technology, engineering and innovation. We also pay tribute to the leadership, the scientists and all the support staff, who over the years, particularly since our democracy, have and continue to contribute passionately to the transformation of the organisation.”
Although it was formed during the apartheid system, it has been re-configured to engage in research projects that respond to both local and global needs. For instance, since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic early this year the CSIR has stepped up. It converted some of its hi-tech laboratories to support government as it launched its national testing drive. It also led efforts in the development of ventilators and rapid testing kits including in the tracking and tracing Covid-19 cases in the country.
CSIR has always availed its facilities to support both local and global initiatives. As far back as 1999 it opened its clinical and botanical supplies unit – a facility whose primary aim is to “add value to South Africa’s rich biodiversity and indigenous knowledge”.
In 2002 it generated “the first induced pluripotent stem cells in Africa”. Scientists in the biomedical stem cell technology use these cells to study the interactions between pathogens and specific cell types in the context of African genetics.
CSIR established the Biomanufacturing Industry Development Centre in 2014 “to provide product and process development support to South Africa’s SMMEs that intend to produce biological for industrial, veterinary and human applications”.
The organisation also boasts the Centre for High Performance Computing, which gives access to local researches to use its massive computing power as they seek new knowledge and new applications of knowledge. In 2015 it allowed CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, to use its facility as a dedicated computer cluster with two particle detector experiments.
In the same year CSIR researchers “created the first high-resolution, locally calibrated national map of woody cover for South Africa, using satellite base synthetic aperture radar mapping with existing light detection and ranging (LIDAR) datasets derived from airborne surveys”. This helps to monitor the country’s biodiversity and clearing alien plants.
As experts have observed, the STEM subjects will, in the context of South Africa and in the short-term, create the much-needed jobs for the army of the unemployed youth. In the long term, the country will also have steady supply of young qualified scientists, technicians and artisans to address the backlog of capital projects.