OPINION: Harnessing STEM education support to impact scarce skills

A screengrab of one of the three Egyptian girls at a Cairo school, pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

A screengrab of one of the three Egyptian girls at a Cairo school, pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Published Oct 7, 2022


By Balan Moodley, CEO, PROTEC

The clarion call for government and organisations to contribute to an increase in scarce skills in the STEM sector has been growing more strident. The need is real, both to fill the skills gap and for much-needed job creation, but more must be done to meet this need.

Gaps in learning and other challenges can be identified throughout the education spectrum; our education system is ultimately delivering predominantly non-STEM-related matric results.

A quick review of the 2021 matric results shows that of the 897 163 learners who wrote NSC matric, only about 45 000 achieved pass marks over 50%. Of the learners who wrote physical science, only about 21 000 achieved over 50%. That’s a low base of learners with STEM gateway subjects, which means most matriculants finish school with no opportunity to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology fields.

The lot is falling to education support organisations and NPOs such as PROTEC to impact these numbers, and while we’re achieving good results, we’re only scratching the surface of the need in an increasingly 4IR-focused world.

PROTEC was established 40 years ago by members of the SA Institute of Civil Engineers to increase the pool of black engineers in South Africa in response to apartheid policies that denied black learners that opportunity. It has always been wholly funded by corporate and individual donors.

On paper, PROTEC should have become obsolete at the dawn of our democracy and a new education system that ensured equal education for all children. But that didn’t happen. In fact, we find the need today greater than ever. Of the top 10 critical scarce skills in South Africa now, three – IT, engineering, and finance – are supported by PROTEC.

The PROTEC model

The model established by PROTEC’s visionary founders has been delivering excellent matric and bachelor pass rates throughout the decades.

Working with high schools within target areas, PROTEC identifies and selects learners with potential in STEM subjects.

Education support is provided in Maths, Science, English and World of Work lifeskills lessons by facilitators and tutors under the management of a PROTEC branch and project manager through PROTEC’s comprehensive e-learning platform and facilitation. This hybrid model is crucial to our aim to be a leading STEM education support provider.

Top results

Results demonstrate the effectiveness of the model in matric, through tertiary education, and into STEM careers. We estimate that over our history, over 30 000 learners from disadvantaged communities have successfully passed through the PROTEC programme and are qualified engineers, doctors, scientists, educators, and other professional people. We’re contributing to the pool of STEM skills and estimate that about 85% of our PROTEC alumni are employed by corporates in South Africa.

Our matric results, both before and during the pandemic, have been excellent, with our Class of 2021 achieving a 99.5% pass rate and a significant 78.2% bachelor pass rate.

Noteworthy are the 2021 matric results from PROTEC’s AngloGold Ashanti Project, which has been running since 2019 for 39 learners in Diepsloot. They achieved a 100% pass rate and a 95% bachelor pass. But most significant is the improvement in results. In maths alone, the top six learners had an average of 35% in 2019, and matriculated with a combined average of 84%.

Three-pronged approach

Our experience shows that our success is founded on three key aspects:

1. The people we employ and train to manage and deliver the programme in the field

2. Our flexible operational model that is managed with stringent accountability

3. Our funders who enable the delivery of our programme

All three must be balanced for optimal success. However, our adaptability means that when funding increases, the model allows growth in reach and in capacity to expand our facilitator and tutor base.

Often businesses seem to view their CSI initiatives as box-ticking exercises. But when we do partner with a funder who engages with us, our teams and beneficiaries, and recognises the real impact their involvement has on individual lives and on communities, their engagement increases exponentially.

Looking ahead

We’ll continue our efforts to build and strengthen partnerships with like-minded organisations who share our vision of young people in successful STEM careers taking their place in a brighter future for South Africa.

We’re committed to continuous evaluation and re-engineering of our strategies to ensure we remain relevant as an NPO in STEM education support. Under consideration are plans to expand PROTEC’s geographical reach and support of a larger number of beneficiaries, ongoing development of our e-learning platform, introducing a more structured approach towards empowering beneficiaries to put their learnt theory into practice, equipping learners to adapt to the changing employment landscape and developing a programme to assist teachers in the GET (grades 8 and 9) and FET (grades 10 to 12).

For more information, visit www.protec.org.za, or email [email protected].