Nurturing innovators for tomorrow. Every scientist, engineer, developer, analyst and programmer was once a curious child. Many learnt at a young age the value of asking questions about the world around them, of pulling things apart and putting them back together again, of experimenting to see if things could be done differently. Those who were given the right opportunities – especially in terms of education – are the pioneers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) today.
The TechnoLab at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) is all too aware of this, and is determined to instil a passion for science and technology among the leaners and students with whom it works. A division of UJ’s Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, the TechnoLab aims to enhance technology education at primary, secondary and tertiary level through a variety of in-house and outreach programmes.
For students working in a range of disciplines at UJ, the TechnoLab offers training on 4IR innovations. “We want to give students access to drones, big data, analytics, robotics and 3D printing,” says Herman Sekoele, the TechnoLab’s Manager. “We don’t want them to leave university without understanding how 4IR will affect their field – as it inevitably will.”
Many of the outreach programmes, which are often funded by or run in collaboration with government departments or corporates, focus on children. The TechnoLab runs science and robotics holiday clubs over the Easter, winter and spring breaks for children up to Grade 7, as well as a camp specifically designed to nurture an interest in science and engineering among girls and young women. One particularly important programme involves teaching learners in Grades 2 to 3 about robotics, and nurturing them as innovators for tomorrow.
Introducing 4IR at the earliest level and nurturing innovators for tomorrow.
In 2021, the Department of Basic Education confirmed its intention to roll out coding and robotics as part of the primary school curriculum. Of course, before this process can proceed, the teachers teaching these subjects need to be properly trained themselves.
To play its part in this process, UJ joined forces with Standard Bank and piloted a robotics project at 20 primary schools, 10 each in Limpopo and the North West. The Standard Bank Primary Schools Robotics Project was initially rolled out in April and May 2021, and specifically targeted teachers who taught South Africa’s youngest learners. Although the first round of training is complete, support visits to the schools involved are ongoing.
“We live in a world that is rapidly changing, and we need to prepare young people to thrive and reach their potential in this space,” says Pearl Phoolo. Standard Bank’s Senior Manager of Corporate Social Investment. “That’s why we focus much of our corporate social investment spend on education initiatives, particularly developing future skills, such as coding and robotics. Our partnership with UJ’s TechnoLab demonstrates our commitment to furthering South Africa’s growth.”
The programme was run by UJ trainers Muvhango Nemakhavhanani and Siyabonga Mamba, who trained and supported the teachers involved. Lebogang Segabutla, a Grade 3 teacher at Tjiane Primary School, a rural school in Limpopo, was among those trained. Initially, she says, she didn’t know what robotics was about. “I was so nervous,” she recalls. “Change is very difficult, especially for those of us who don’t have easy access to gadgets and technology. But we understand that the world is evolving and that we need to change with it. Getting to grips with robotics is an important part of this process.”
Sekina Monanyane, a Grade R teacher and Head of Department at Tsewe Primary School in the North West, had a similar experience. “Learning about robotics was new to us,” she says. “But as we started to learn about it, we realised how impressive and necessary it is. These innovations are equipping our leaners with valuable skills and helping us, as teachers, to teach.”
Lebogang recalls how the facilitators from UJ’s TechnoLab taught her not only how to engage with the content from a theoretical and practical perspective, but also how to adapt they’re teaching to nurturing innovators for tomorrow. “We learnt how to assist our learners, and how to encourage teamwork. Our role is to improve their technical abilities and to nurture collaboration – it’s important that they learn from each other as well as their teachers,” she explains.
The learners’ response has been overwhelming. “Our learners are loving the process,” says Glanice Masilo, a foundational phase teacher who works with Sekina at Tsewe Primary School. “It’s wonderful seeing them so stimulated. They never want their robotics lessons to end.” “I’ve loved seeing my learners challenge me,” says Lebogang. “They quickly went beyond what was required of them and started to think creatively.”
The schools that participated in the project were provided with all the robotics equipment they required, as well as tablets and laptops. They have also been entered into the World Robotics Olympiad, which will take place towards the end of 2021. The Olympiad provides learners with an opportunity to test their newly acquired skills by using robotics to solve problems.
Just the beginning
This is only the beginning of the project. In early 2022, the TechnoLab and Standard Bank plan to roll it out at a further 20 schools in the North West. “The incredible buy-in we secured from the schools and teachers has prompted us to continue this project,” says Herman. “I think they were concerned that the subject would be introduced into the curriculum and they wouldn’t be properly prepared, so they were so willing and excited to be a part of it. And they’ve passed this enthusiasm on to their learners.”
UJ’s Faculty of Education at its Soweto Campus, under the guidance of South African National Research Foundation Chair Professor Elizabeth Henning, is also conducting research into the project. The team’s aim is to assess the impact that understanding robotics might have on learners’ maths and science performance and nurturing these innovators for tomorrow.
These skills they are teaching, Lebogang, Sekina and Glanice agree, are going to be critical as their young learners make their way in the world. Being able to think critically and creatively, to develop innovative solutions and to solve problems are essential in the 4IR era, and will help their learners’ to succeed in their academic and professional lives, whatever direction they choose.