Engaging learners in STEM education

At Education Week (organised by Spintelligent), which was held at the Sandton Convention Centre, in June, this year, a STEM Panel was set up to elaborate on how to engage learners in STEM education. Members of the panel presented interesting projects, and described different approaches, that could be used to promote learners’ engagement in STEM education in South Africa.

The STEM subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are not very popular and are perceived as difficult, by most of our students and many of our teachers.  This poor perception and negative attitude towards these important subjects is part of a vicious cycle that is reflected in the poor performance of our students when they participate in National and International Benchmarking Tests, in both Math and Science.

Where does South Africa stand when it comes to creating a pool of STEM qualified professionals? Not in a good position at all!
In 2012, statistic of the Grade 12 Cohort showed that 66% of these learners were ‘lost’ somewhere along the way, during the planned 12 year period of their schooling. Only 27% of the cohort, who completed matric, qualified to study for a degree, at a university. In addition to this, if we took 1000 children who started Grade 1 in 2001, only SIX of them would choose to pursue a STEM Qualification at a tertiary level, and of these SIX, only THREE would complete the qualification. (SASOL Inzalo Foundation Report).

There are many factors contributing to this state of affairs. One of the crucial ones is the poor delivery of the STEM subjects, by our teaching force.

Members of the panel presented the following:

The Robotics Project, run by ORT SA CAPE, presented by Dr Lydia Able.  Robotic activities are offered to both boys and girls, from townships schools, in the Western Cape.  The use of Technology for learning and development is done through the use of Lego WeDo and Mindstorm NXT Robotics kits. The children use the kits to design and build robots which, besides developing critical thinking and auditory listening skills, encourage the development of fine motor skills and hand eye co-ordination. If one is to succeed in Mathematics and Science it is essential that one becomes a critical thinker, and this skill is the major skill developed when one participates in Robotics.

The Bloodhound Foundation, presented by Chirstopher Maxwell also shared their exciting project which is to be launched in 2014. The Foundation will bring the first Super Sonic Car in the world to Kimberly!!  When they work in schools, the Foundation aims to get learners to be enthusiastic and interested in science-based subjects.

The above presentation was followed by an interesting presentation, by Olatunde Osiyemi, from the University of Fort Hare, on Mathematical Literacy, and its potential impact on the state of STEM. This in turn, was followed by an inspiring presentation by Seliki Tlhabane, CEO of the Sangari Institute.  He shared his successful approach to the teaching of Mathematics.  Using his approach, he puts pupils into mixed ability groups and all members of the group take responsibility to ensure that all members of their group perform at an acceptable level.  When it comes to informal assessments, the group is allowed to peruse the question paper prior to writing it, to discuss the questions and what is required from them, in order to answer them correctly.  This really caused consternation and much discussion from members of the the audience, and it was eventually agreed that’ if we always did what we have always done, we will always get what we’ve always got. Therefore to improve our Maths and Science results we need to be open to using new and different approaches, especially those where the learners are achieving positive results.

South Africa can overcome its educational challenges with the persistent implementation of strategies, positive thinking and action, working in collaboration and partnership, and by working towards one goal – the child. We have to always keep in mind that investing in our children is investing in our future.  The most important contributing factor to this investment is first and foremost education, so we have to deliver high quality education, to ensure that our children will grow up to be responsible, contributing, independent citizens of South Africa.