Encouraging more women to participate in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and innovation (STEMI) will not only help to reduce underrepresentation in these industries, but will also help to grow the number of people investigating, understanding and solving the challenges societies face.
This was one of the topics discussed by a range of STEMI professionals during a 'Women in STEM' webinar hosted by the Government Communication Information System and the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) on June 22.
Education nonprofit organisation Nka’Thuto EduPropeller co-founder Thulile Khanyile, who is also a scientist and social entrepreneur, said the need to increase the number of women in sciences was based on the reason STEMI disciplines and careers exist, which is the need to understand problems and then to create solutions for the citizens of the world.
"Technology is on the increase and advancing, and innovation is dominating economic development. If we do not encourage greater participation by women in STEM, which underpins economic growth, we will limit our citizenry, as well as our nation.
“STEMI is a collection of processes that enable us to come up with solutions to help society," she said.
The use of science and technology products is increasing daily and information about STEMI and education about its role are important.
"The ability to come up with a solution is not linked to education; however, implementing solutions requires technical skills. We need to open innovation and STEMI so that every person can see how important it is for people to participate in STEMI.
"This is also important to teach children how to use modern platforms; for example such as understanding how [video content platform] YouTube's algorithms function in suggesting content and how content producers can use this to promote their content," Khanyile said.
South Africa, and the world, needs women talking about STEMI subject matter and solutions that are developed for society.
"It takes a particular mindset to be able to identify and understand a problem, develop a solution and then to convert that into a business case to deliver to society. This, technology and innovation, is what we teach high school children at Nka’Thuto EduPropeller.
"We help school children understand why it is important to have a skill set that enables them to identify, understand and solve problems. We work only in areas where children do not have ready access to devices and connectivity, and we place connected devices into their hands and have a mobile innovation centre to provide the tools they need to analyse problems and develop solutions," said Khanyile.
Nka’Thuto EduPropeller found itself in dire financial need owing to Covid-19, and the DSI assisted the nonprofit to obtain business rescue funding.
"Our work is expensive. We have to ensure there is food for the students, and we have to arrange for young scientists, who volunteer their time, to mentor and teach the children with the aid of the mobile innovation centre and devices," she said.
The nonprofit is also aiming to commercialise and distribute the ideas conceptualised by the school children, such as a novel hydroponic technology system to grow food, she added.
Meanwhile, National Research Foundation (NRF) South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement MD Dr Mamoeletsi Mosia said the NRF, while primarily focused on the needs of tertiary students, engaged school children prior to Grade 9 to ensure they understood which subjects they needed to take, for example, pure mathematics up to Matric if they want to pursue a career in STEMI disciplines.
"If we start at the student level, we have missed the boat. The journey starts with parents, who also need to understand the value of STEMI and what careers their children would pursue through STEMI.
“We need to take parents and society along on the journey to creating more STEMI, and specifically female STEMI-skilled professionals," she said.
"If we do not engage with learners about STEMI's roles and importance in society and the economy, then we will have missed the opportunity to encourage and develop more STEMI students.
"Therefore, we are involved in engaging learners and assisting them to take and pass mathematics and science, and we are similarly helping educators to make it easier for them to impart knowledge of these subjects," said Mosia.
Part of engaging with learners is to make sciences interesting, and the NRF is partnering with nonprofit organisations, such as Nka’Thuto EduPropeller, that are passionate about science and engaging with learners.
Further, the NRF mostly provides funding for postgraduate studies, which is where the need is often greatest, and funding is provided on the basis of affordability, helping students who are able to pursue technical careers but do not have access to funding on the basis of academic excellence.
This advice to learners was echoed by University of KwaZulu-Natal Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine HIV Pathogenesis Programme PhD student and scientist Zakithi Mkhize who said that learners needed to work hard and be resilient to obtain a sound academic record, which is important when applying for funding.
"Lots of the future jobs will require people who are skilled in STEMI disciplines. I am a STEMI activist and serve as a role model who has walked the path for other young females, which was a rarity during my studies.
“It is important for scientists and prospective scientists to bring people [information] about the role of STEMI and share their knowledge to encourage more girls and young women to learn about and use STEMI," she said.