Changing the geek mindset

Minister of Science and Technology Mosibudi Mangena looks the studious type. And with a masters degree in applied mathematics he would be the first to admit that his passion for science, which started while he was still a schoolboy in Limpopo about 40 years ago, would render him a geek by today’s standards.

It’s an image he, and other South African science fundis, are eager to dispel in an effort to encourage learners of all ages to take up careers in science, engineering and technology.

When Mangena took over his current portfolio in April 2004, he maintained that science and technology did not exactly whet the appetites of government and public alike. People, he said, did not see the relevance and importance of men and women in white lab-coats working with test tubes and odd-­smelling substances.

He made it his mission to change this, to share his love of a subject which he credits with challenging him to question everything and to investigate and interrogate things until finding their essence — “what makes them tick”.

With the help of mainstream media hype over television series such as CSI — whose cast makes those white lab-coats look positively appealing — Mangena may just be winning the battle against the spectre of boffinism.

The increase in interest in events such as SciFest Africa — South Africa’s annual festival of science and technology held each year in Grahamstown — and the steady rise in the number of students pursuing science subjects at tertiary level show that the ubiquitous geek may have, at last, transformed into a much cooler dude.

The change in mindset is largely thanks to a number of clever initiatives which have fostered partnerships between the academic world and the private sector, helping to develop science skills to meet the specific demands of industry.

The Technology and Human Resources for Industry (Thrip) initiative is one of these. Pioneered by the Department of Trade and Industry and the National Research Foundation, Thrip has used joint ventures between seats of academic learning and private business to boost South African industry by supporting research and technology development, and by enhancing the quality and quantity of appropriately skilled people.

In this way, the programme brings together the best of South Africa’s researchers, academics and industry players in funding partnerships that enable participants to improve the quality of their products, services and people.

Similarly, corporate sponsorship of science-based initiatives has proven invaluable in helping to raise public awareness and the general “trendiness” of science as a career and an invaluable tool for empowerment.

South African energy giant Sasol has been at the forefront of this synergy between academia and the corporate world, and for many years has been the major sponsor of SciFest. Through this and countless educational initiatives and corporate responsibility endeavours, Sasol has helped to generate excitement for science, engineering and technology, spurring countless young people on to study these topics at school and at tertiary education level, in turn making a valuable contribution to technical competence in South Africa.

Likewise, insurance behemoth Old Mutual has been a stalwart of the movement to make science a more sexy proposition to South African students.

According to Old Mutual managing director Paul Hanratty, South Africa’s greatest asset is its people.

“In order for our country to prosper and grow, our children need access to modern and relevant education, training and skills development,” says Hanratty.

“Education and training are vital to grow the South African economy, and as such we support initiatives such as SciFest and other development projects which help children to become passionate and excited about science in an innovative and fun way.”

But perhaps the most recognisable South African currently “out there” making science cool for kids is Mark Shuttleworth.

IT genius, billionaire, astronaut — Shuttleworth is the modern icon for anyone with a bent for technology. His ground-breaking Hip2B2 initiative has helped spark the imaginations of countless children and students of all ages, inspiring a love of all things scientific by using fun as a vehicle.

The Hip2B2 website is packed with information on careers, different scientific fields and disciplines, interesting snippets and stories from around the world and the very latest developments in the scientific world, all aimed at one thing: growing tomorrow’s scientists by igniting the spark of interest today.

Launched in 2002 as part of Shuttleworth’s First African in Space campaign, the idea was to make our top entrepreneur’s adventure in outer space and the scientific research conducted while he was in orbit available to learners.

Taking a leaf from Shuttleworth’s personal book, Hip2B2 maintains that education in the sciences is the foundation for personal and career prosperity and that by students diligently applying themselves to studies in science, technology, entrepreneurship and maths, they will be greatly rewarded for their efforts.

Through its interactive website, a TV series on SABC2, a magazine and mobizine (a weekly mini newsletter sent out to cellphones), the Hip2B2 brand has established itself as a vital role player in encouraging South Africa’s youth to take science seriously as a career option.

It is aimed primarily at high-school students and, as such, has appointed 13 “brand ambassadors” — talented 17-year-olds who are the public “face” of the initiative, appearing on the TV show, writing for the magazine and becoming involved in community outreach programmes and a national roadshow.

Keep the powerful accountable

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Sharon Van Wyk
Guest Author

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