A worrying trend taking place at school level in South Africa

Mathematics and science – the two crucial disciplines required for a foundation in engineering – have seen a rapid decline in the number of students writing and passing these subjects in matric.

According to the Department of Education, the number of students taking maths in Grade 12 declined from 263,903 in 2015 to 222,043 in 2019, while physical science declined from 193,189 to 164,478 in the same time-frame.

A career in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), and similar fields which have been identified as the types of skills required to meet the job titles of the future, requires a foundation of maths and science, noted Terry Rosenberg, chairman of Yaskawa Southern Africa, a manufacturer of industrial robots.

Subsequently, you also need some form of tertiary education in electronic and/or mechanical engineering to open doors in the field, he said.

With the alarming levels of unemployment in South Africa, it’s essential to identify where there are skills shortages and to encourage learners to study in those fields that present employment opportunities. An industry such as robotics is calling out for more engineers – however, there’s a concerning trend that’s taking place at school level, Rosenberg said.

“It’s important that students differentiate between the manufacturing of robots and the use of robots, because our country generally specialises in the latter,” Rosenberg said.

“Most robots are manufactured overseas, but you do require knowledge of how robots are made and how they work so that you can understand where they can be utilised and how to program them for certain applications.”

Compared to global standards, Rosenberg believes South Africa has a long way to go in terms of the quantity and quality of the skills levels required, and an intervention needs to start at grassroots. To achieve this, however, both the public and private sectors need to play critical roles in skills development.

In terms of the former, it’s important to provide the basic educational tools while encouraging and channelling students into the engineering environment.

If the students don’t have the foundations, such as maths and science literacy, it’s difficult for them to progress in the engineering field. At the same time, the private sector can provide specialised training and certifications to suitable candidates.

“As a company, we take training extremely seriously, hence the setting up of our training facility and academy,” Rosenberg said. “We take the steps to offer training courses for our clients and their staff, taking them through the essentials of robotics and how to use the products they buy.

Rosenberg stressed the importance for companies and institutions to work together in addressing the skills gap. Instead of waiting for either party to act and make the first move, they can support each other through knowledge sharing and other means.

“The South African Institute of Welding is doing a good job of training people on how to weld,” Rosenberg said.

“Cooperating with it, we donated a robot to the institute and offer advanced training for welding robots. We believe this can only be beneficial to the welders in training, allowing them to develop new skills and experience the world of robotics first-hand. And this could inspire them to upskill and embark on a journey into our industry at some point.”

Ultimately, for anyone wanting to get into the robotics field, it’s important to bed down the basics first. Students need to investigate the requirements and criteria for their desired career paths, ensuring they’re studying the right subjects and meeting the necessary standards.

“There are opportunities out there for determined and diligent pupils, but it’s important that they also lay the seeds for their future success,” Rosenberg said.

Growing trend

Figures from the Department of Education for 2019 showed that out of the 787,717 students who wrote matric examinations, only 222,034 (28%) wrote mathematics. Of those who wrote, 45% did not achieve a passing grade of above 30%.

Matric exams are set to start on 5 November 2020 and will run until 15 December 2020, with 1,058,699 candidates registered to write these examinations.

University of Cape Town professor Suellen Shay has criticised the decline in mathematics reflected in South Africa’s matric results for 2019.

The number of students who wrote mathematics has continued to drop every year, and the pass rate is down to only 54%.

The minimum score for a mathematics passing grade is 30%.

“The drop in numbers of pupils writing the grade 12 mathematics exam should be of great concern,” Shay said.

“Performance in mathematics matters for university entrance. Without it, school leavers are not eligible for programmes at university in science or engineering or some in commerce.”

She added that a pass mark of 30% may secure university entrance, but it is too low to adequately prepare students to succeed at a university level.

Read: 5 sought-after tech skills in South Africa right now

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A worrying trend taking place at school level in South Africa