OPINION: Learning maths crucial for all youth

“WHAT do you want to be when you grow up?” We were all asked this question a few years after starting school or even before.

When I was growing up, prominent jobs were those of doctors, teachers, nurses and police officers. Rarely did we talk about a job that was in demand, paid really well and involved helping to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges in health, energy or the environment as is the case today.

These days, the computer-driven modern age has presented a mind-boggling array of specialised careers requiring STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

From robotics to building wireless linkages, from biometrics to seismic geology and digital modelling, hundreds of new fields have opened up which need high-tech skills. STEM-related careers are making the impossible come alive.

Indeed, when we were growing, up we never spoke of careers involving flying over the ocean. Now, there are stealth aircraft able to fly more than 1000km/h.

There are even unmanned drones. Modern technology has allowed astronauts to set foot on the moon and spacecraft have been sent to Mars.

These days the diverse range of future-focused jobs include roles in Information Communication Technology such as software developers or testers, data analysts, network infrastructure engineers, customer service and project managers; and jobs such as development technology managers in the food and drinks industry.

Science has brought medical research a long way. Vaccines have been developed for various illnesses and coronary stents are used to treat heart disease. Mathematics contributes to every one of these fields. Scientists are in the process of finding a cure for Ebola, the virus that has killed many people on our continent.

We are experimenting with geothermal energy and promoting the practice of the three R’s – reduce, reuse, and recycle.

What’s next, travelling back in time or stepping onto Mars? Who knows what the future holds?

The truth is all of these functions did not appear out of thin air. They are the outcome of STEM-based careers. And with such rapid advancement, it’s exciting to imagine what STEM involvement will offer in years down the road.

So why am I talking about STEM. There’s no denying STEM education is on society’s radar.

The Eastern Cape is delighted to have the opportunity to share our passion for STEM with those who starting their careers and to energise and enthuse them about the opportunities ahead.

The province’s Department of Education provides impartial advice and guidance to ensure that our children choose paths best suited to their aspirations and abilities, including those in STEM-related fields.

Our province and country needs qualified, passionate people to develop the next generation of cancer drugs, to solve global warming, to create smarter machines, and to plot out our next space missions.

As a parent, do your part to inspire our youth to pursue a rewarding, high-demand STEM career. As a learner, consider a career emanating from STEM subjects. If you’re a company that hires workers with STEM skills, I urge you to consider creating opportunities throughout the year to engage with youth in the communities you serve. Volunteer to hold career expos at schools and in classrooms, plan behind-the-scenes tours at your company and offer hands-on activities to ignite the passions of youth people for a STEM career. You too can play a role in bolstering tomorrow’s workforce.

While STEM education may spark future work in innovation and technology, there may be a perception that educating youngsters with a STEM approach is too narrow, focusing only in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics without exposing them to the more creative activities or job fields, such as in the visual arts, or music or writing.

This perception is not entirely correct since science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates contribute to a greater generation of well-rounded, inquisitive youth who are equipped with skills to help them become the future leaders.

Education researchers have also concluded that STEM education helps children to develop several crucial skills outside of areas such as science for instance. This includes cultivating creativity, building teamwork skills and becoming problem solvers – all of these areas are needed in all careers.

STEM is the key to a better future. Let us nurture home-grown talent to pursue STEM careers.

Phumulo Masualle is premier of the Eastern Cape Follow him on @EC_ Premier and on Facebook at Masincokole.