What is STEM Education?
STEM Education is a term to encompass ‘Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths’. Although these subjects are supposed to be taught in schools, what is the significance of teaching specifically STEM? Education in the STEM subjects lays the foundation for children in critical thinking, and to be literate in the language of the future. Steering education with foresight about the future will set up a society for success. STEM education is important for the literacy of the next generation; it is important in preparing for evolving industries and careers; it is important for changing the trajectory of underprivileged communities.
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Why is STEM Education important?
Across most grades internationally, maths and science and technology are being taught as a part of the regular curriculum. We understand that from primary school, teachers should be developing math and science skills, alongside reading and writing, for a child’s foundation. As exposure to technology grows, children need to become technology literate from an early age.
While math, science, and technology are foundational school subjects amongst reading and writing they are classified together as ‘STEM’ subjects. Why is this? It is no secret that reading and writing are essential to children’s future success. There is no doubt that without the ability to read and write, students would not have the same maths, science, and technology literacy. STEM Education uniquely provides students with a space to develop their problem solving and critical thinking skills (White, David. 2014). White also indicates in his article that students have a growing advantage in the workforce as they learn STEM, with the advantage increasing from primary school to high school to post-secondary.
Although technology and engineering are as important as maths and science subjects, they are commonly offered the most in post-secondary education. A potential reason for this, White offers, is that teachers are not as comfortable teaching technology and engineering in primary and high schools. While studying technology allows learners to understand the application of certain tools or methods, most often the term ‘technology’ is only synonymous with computers. It is examples like these that limits the potential of a subject like technology.
Impact of STEM Education for South African Literacy
Typically ‘literacy’ is directed towards reading and writing, but it is also the “competence or knowledge in a specified area”. STEM literacy, in this context, is important for all South Africans. The National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) explains on their website that “South Africa continues to suffer from problems in its school education system, notably in STEM subjects. University graduation in STEM-related courses is around 20%, contributing to a dire need for high-level skills in STEM areas. All along the education ‘pipeline’ there are problems affecting the next level. Studies and statistics call for urgent intervention across all STEM subjects and all grades of schooling”.
Teaching STEM from primary to secondary school, equally irrespective of social class, is necessary for the future of South Africans. Across social groups, there is a discrepancy in the consistency and quality of STEM education. From increasing literacy in STEM subjects, there will be an increase of a skilled workforce for the rising career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and maths.
Impact of STEM Education for the South African Economy
An expanse is forming between the availability of STEM-focused jobs and a skilled workforce who are STEM literate. In South Africa, the economy and future of the country will be impacted by this expanse. The NSTF clearly explains this gap in their concept document from 2018. They laid out the Medium Term Strategic Framework’s plan that was supposed to be achieved by 2017. South Africa planned to have “75% of learners in Grades 3, 6 and 9 tested through the ANA should achieve above 50% in literacy and numeracy; 57 000 graduates in engineering must be produced; 45 000 human and animal health graduates must be produced; 36 000 natural and physical sciences graduates must be produced” (NSTF. 2018), and more.
Matrics currently graduating and moving into the workforce are not properly STEM literate to take on available jobs in these industries. By increasing the exposure to STEM subjects throughout school, students will engage more with science, maths, and technology, and matriculate with higher STEM literacy. Exposure to STEM in school will increase the students who will pursue related careers. To create a more employable workforce, young people are better off studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects (World Economic Forum, 2017). Lillian Barnard, from Microsoft, put it this way, “the biggest challenges South African entrepreneurs face – as well as those looking for work in corporate firms, is a lack of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills” (BusinessTech,2018).(BusinessTech,2018).
Impact of STEM Education for the Future of Underprivileged Communities
A majority of South Africa’s workforce comes from the townships and rural areas; these are seemingly “unemployable” residents who do in fact impact the country’s economy. Although there are some learners from private and public schools with STEM literacy who are employable, many learners are left to the wayside. Empowering learners from underprivileged communities in South Africa is a big step towards upliftment from the cycle of poverty, crime, and unemployment. Improving STEM literacy through access, resources, and quality education will improve students exposure to subjects that will grant them greater chances of employment.
Basic STEM skill sets are vital for employment, even if learners do not enter into STEM-related careers. Lillian Barnard (BusinessTech, 2018) puts the importance of STEM literacy in perspective, as some form of STEM education will be required from 80% of prospective jobs by 2020. Problem-solving, critical thinking, basic arithmetic, science principles, and a foundational use of computers and applications will set underprivileged individuals up for success. Students entering post-secondary or a new job with confidence in STEM, such as basic computer skills, will help them to keep up with expectations.
STEM Education Statistics
- South Africa rated 92nd out of 124 countries (2015) and 61st out of 137 countries (2017/2018) for their Human Capital Index. This rating shows how well South Africa leverages human capital and establishes workforces for the demands of competitive economies. (World Economic Forum)
- In South Africa, about 51% of young adults lack upper secondary or higher education. (World Economic Forum, 2017).
- The unemployment rate in South Africa was estimated to be above 25% and rising in 2017. (World Economic Forum)
- According to OECD, fewer than 1 in 3 engineering graduates and fewer than 1 in 5 computer science graduates are girls. At age 15, only 4.7% of girls reported that they expected to have a career in engineering or computing compared to boys at 18% (2018).
- According to OECD, only 25% of students in the 20-24 age range in South Africa are enrolled in full or part-time studies. (2016, OECD)
NonProfit Work in South Africa’s STEM Education
STEM education is very important to us as a Foundation. With the impact that STEM education has on our culture, country, and economy, STEM is our primary focus in the education branch of our organisation. Many schools around South Africa need assistance to give the quality of STEM education that students need to be successful and literate in science, maths, and technology. By focusing on these subjects, we align with the need in South Africa to fill the workforce gap and practically equip schools to do this.
Most schools we work with lack the proper resources to teach computers, science, math, and technology – even if they would like to. We have been to schools who don’t have a computer centre to be able to teach their CAT subjects. We have been to schools who don’t have enough computers for each student in a class; they don’t even have internet access. We have been to schools who don’t have lab equipment and resources to teach their students science and instead can only teach theoretically. These are only some of their stories. These are the schools that our Foundation assists so that the learners have a chance to become STEM literate.
When we begin a project at a school, we determine the needs of the school within their STEM scope. Some schools need a math classroom, a science classroom, and a computer centre. Other schools need a couple of each class, while others only need one classroom. Once everyone agrees, we fundraise towards it. When funding is in, we begin the renovation on the class(es) and work on the custom design that has been decided between our Foundation and the school. We have custom desks and seating made depending on the type of classroom and the capacity. Once the renovations and installations are complete, we fill the class(es) with smart boards and learning resources.
When our education project at a school finishes, the classroom is filled with proper resources for teachers – because they would like to teach well. We have given a school a new computer centre to be able to teach their CAT curriculum. We have given a school enough computers for each student in a class, reconstructed their classroom layout, and given them internet access. We have supplied a school with a new science laboratory, filled with lab equipment and resources for practical experiments. These are only some of our stories. These are part of the schools that our Foundation has assisted so that the learners have a chance to become STEM literate.
“When I talk on open platforms – especially to young people and women – when I speak about ‘how to get a ticket to the game’, it’s that you actually do get a STEM education.” Lillian Barnard (BusinessTech, 2018)
SAME Foundation’s education branch is here to create that ticket to the game for underprivileged learners in South Africa.
Our STEM Education Projects
BusinessTech. (2018). By 2020 almost 80% of jobs will require STEM education. <https://businesstech.co.za/news/business/283516/by-2020-almost-80-of-jobs-will-require-stem-education/>
The National Science and Technology Forum (2018). CONCEPT PAPER, proSET/NSTF in collaboration with Ukuqonda Institute, STEM Education with a focus on Maths, the ultimate building block of the sciences, engineering and technology. <http://www.nstf.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Concept-document.pdf>.
White, David. (2014). What is STEM education and why is it important?. Florida Association of Teacher Educators Journal. 14. 1-8.
World Economic Forum (2017).6 charts on education around the world. <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/09/countries-with-best-education-systems/>