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OfferZen Updates: MERGE Presentation: Ridhwana Khan on Teaching Tech Skills & STEM, Empowering South African Students
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MERGE Presentation: Ridhwana Khan on Teaching Tech Skills & STEM, Empowering South African Students

17 January 2020, by Candice Grobler

Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today. – Malcolm X.

Digital skills aren’t widely taught in South African schools and, while the government knows this is a problem, they are still working on a solution. We as individuals, organisations and communities in the tech space have the abilities to get involved, and gradually and sustainably improve the lives of students in our country.

In this talk, Ridhwana Khan shares her experiences running a non-profit organisation in the education sector, and how she’s built a curriculum for teaching digital skills.


Presentation transcript

Ridhwana Khan

[00:10] Thank you so much for attending my talk today. The crowd is really huge today and I’m very excited to be here. So, my name is Ridhwana Khan and I am a senior software engineer at a company called Smile Identity. To give you a little bit of background on what Smile Identity does, we basically use machine learning and facial recognition to be able to verify people’s identity. I’m also really, really passionate about cultivating diverse and inclusive places, especially within the tech industry. And finally, I care very deeply about the education space in South Africa. So, I run an NPO called KasiMaths and we basically delve in the education space.

[00:58] So, in this talk I’d like to chat more about that third point, around the education space. I’d like to talk about how we empower and expose students in South Africa, especially within the non-developed communities, to be able to be best equipped for the world out there so that they can have a better future for themselves and for their children. I’ll talk a little bit about what I’ve done in the space so far, what problems exist, what measures were taken in order to produce solutions and how we as a community can work together to improve the education space.

[01:40] So, my background in terms of how I started KasiMaths: About two years ago, I was on a program in the US called TechWomen, and during this program there was a socio-economic component, where we were asked to solve one of the socio-economic problems in South Africa – or, at least have a think about it and come up with some solutions. So, after some thought, myself and my colleagues, discussed and researched and we came up with a couple of options, and we finally realised that the education space is actually one that needs dire help. We were in absolute shock when we realised that in order for students to pass from grade to grade at school, they simply needed 40% in four subjects, one being the home language. They then needed 30% in another three subjects and they needed 2% as a condonation in a subject if it would allow them to pass.

[02:43] All this time, whilst the department of education kept on lowering the standards, universities were not changing their requirements. And so, in order to study something in a STEM course at UCT or at Wits, you still needed approximately 80% in mathematics as an entrance. Now, I’m sure you’ve deduced that this causes limited options for these students. This coupled with other issues that I will highlight in the talk, caused KasiMaths to be born. So, KasiMaths received initial funding from the US embassy because they believed in our idea. We then registered our non-profit organisation and we started on our journey.

[03:29] So, what is KasiMaths you might ask? KasiMaths is a fun and interactive after-school STEM enrichment hub. We teach students that maths is fun, maths is essential and maths is everywhere. In a more practical sense, we help students with their foundation in mathematics and in all the other subjects. We expose them to STEM, and we show them how they’d use these subjects that they learn in school in the real world, and what options are available to them afterwards. We need to remember that since STEM skills are vital for future job opportunities, and we are living in a society where technology is getting more advanced with time, it is better to teach students digital and STEM skills in a way that compliments their foundation and promotes their growth whilst piquing their interests. Hmm, that sounds easily achievable, right? Well, not really. In South Africa we have a number of economical, foundational, resource and infrastructure issues that we need to take into consideration.

[04:38] The next couple of slides will be about these problems and what we experience in South Africa. So, the first one is, according to statistics in 2019, there are 31 learners per educator in a public school, whilst in private schools there are only 11 students per educator. That means there are three times as many students per educator in a public school than in a private school. This coupled with a lack of resources, language barriers, foundational issues and financial burdens make it difficult for educators to see effective results, and hence, they feel a little bit overwhelmed and dissatisfied with frustration. Another issue that we have is the infrastructure and resource availability within schools, which makes basic teaching difficult, but makes teaching STEM skills even more difficult. From this table you can see that there is dire shortage of infrastructure across the provinces.

[05:40] In addition to there being a dire need for infrastructure, some of the necessities like water and electricity are not being provided at schools. This is an extremely disheartening situation. One of our partner schools, actually recently got funded for a fully-funded lab as well as a library. Then, the teacher went away for the vacation and they were looted and vandalised. So, it turns out that once they do get funding, sometimes it doesn’t actually prove to be in the long-run. As you can see, this lack of infrastructure and resources will cause an issue for students to be able to learn STEM.

[06:34] The next metric I’d like to use is fail and pass rates of mathematics and sciences. These are statistics from 2008 to 2016. The table shows that the students that have written mathematics and science from 2008 to 2016 have actually decreased. The proportion of candidates that are passing mathematics with a 70%, has significantly decreased and it’s still in the single figures. It’s 6.9% in 2016. Also, around 40 to 50% of students receive only 0% to 29% – that’s really low. When we’re trying to educate students, we also need to take into account their backgrounds. So, this table shows the literacy level of parents and people within the province. The province with the highest proportion of literate adults is actually Gauteng following in suit with Western Cape. When parents are not literate, it becomes more difficult for students to learn, because now they have to look for a support system outside of their home. And, because schools are already overpopulated, it makes it difficult for them to find that comfort there.

[07:53] Building on the literacy rates, we see the languages that are spoken in households. Our diversity makes us unique and proud to be South African, but when we do not take the diversity into account, when we are educating students, we actually cause a detriment to the education. From the stats, we can see that it isiZulu is the most spoken language in South Africa with 5.7 million. Thereafter is isiXhosa with 3.8 million. English is ranked as fourth as a home language in South Africa. Born in an English-speaking home, I really took that for granted. Being taught in English, writing my exams in English, reading textbooks in English: I thought that it was perfectly normal. And then I started teaching at KasiMaths, and I realised that not everybody is as fortunate as I am. A tutor at KasiMaths, Tebogo, narrated a story to me.

[08:49] I’d like to quote his words on stage today. He said, “Ridhwana, I was teaching at a public school in Soweto for approximately two years. I was a maths teacher there. I speak English and I speak Tswana as my home language. Being a Tswana speaking person does not necessarily mean that I speak and understand all the other African languages fluently. As a teacher in school, I quickly realised that sometimes English was a fourth or fifth home language for a lot of these kids. This meant that even though I was proficient at my job, I still struggled to teach the class because firstly, English was not their first language. Secondly, their foundation in school for English was not very good, and thirdly that the students spoke as many as six to seven languages in the class, and I could not communicate with each one of them in their home language. When I used high words, the students struggled to understand me. Theorems like Pythagoras, were foreign on their tongues, and concepts were lost in translation of language barriers.”

[09:59] I learned a couple of lessons from Tebogo when he told me the story and applied them to KasiMaths. I’d like to share them later on. The next metric that I used was transport. So, a lot of the students – a whopping 12.3 million students – actually walk to school, and about 81% of them indicated that it takes them approximately half an hour to reach their school. By the time students get to school, especially in under-resourced areas, we find that they are tired, some of them didn’t have food before they left, some of them don’t have proper shoes: They’re low on energy and so, they tend to retain less information. Also, when we have any additional programs, we tend to have them in Sandton or in Killarney, when in actual fact these students can’t reach those areas easily. They need to be within our communities. These are only some of the problems that I experience on a daily basis. There are others that I experience with the KasiMaths program in the classroom.

[11:06] Look at all those smiling faces. For all the problems that we have in South Africa, in every single lesson I find that the students are excited, they have an eagerness to learn and explore, and their parents and their schools are willing to get involved and to provide a better education for them. This serves as my motivation to help to find solutions that expose and empower them to a better future. So, the way that we’ve tackled some of the problems, or solved the problems, at KasiMaths, is to try work within the bounds and within the constraints that South Africa has at the moment, and at other times, we actually try and move those constraints. Here are some of the solutions that we apply.

[11:56] The first one is transport and infrastructure. 100% of our students walk to the program after school every week, and that’s why we’ve created the program to be in the heart of Soweto. We’ve partnered with an American Space library and we host the program there. It makes it accessible and comfortable for the students to be able to walk to the program every day. Here at the hub, we also have high speed internet access and infrastructure.

[12:26] Foundations first: So, our strategy is to always first teach the foundations and improve on the foundations, before we start introducing things like robotics and coding. Keep in mind Tebogo’s experience from earlier on, the story that I narrated. The language barriers have caused a steeper learning for the students, and so we focus on recapping and further explaining those basic concepts before we start delving into more advanced concepts. We also want to prepare their minds for logical and analytical thinking so that they can learn to practice STEM at a later stage.

[13:05] Some of the techniques that Tebogo and other volunteers, including myself, have tried to implement is, we try not to use very complex words. We use the basics of English in order to teach them. We also then try and speak to them in their home language if they’re not understanding a concept in English. And, thereafter, we translate it back to English. In addition, we really focus on foundations and making sure that those are really solid before we move on to things like robotics and coding.

[13:45] Real world examples: The next practice that we implement is that when we teach a concept, we make sure that we know how the students are actually going to be applying that concept in the real world. So, my favorite tech gadget to build is a little microbit with a sensor and some coding, and usually I start off the lesson by asking them, “So, who thinks that they can build a park distance control system in one of those fancy cars where when you move closer to an object, it starts beeping?” Usually the answer is, “No, Madam, we can’t do that. That’s too complicated for us.” So, what I do is I break down the problem, and show them how they’d use mathematics to calculate the distances and the angles from the obstruction to the device. We then use a little bit of physics, which basically shows them the circuitry that they’d apply to the microbit, and then we put everything together using a little bit of coding and hardware knowledge. With a hunger to learn, belief in themselves and a good foundation, I help them to realise that anything is possible.

[14:56] We do loads of other things. We show them how a convection and conduction is done using balloons and candles that we put under those balloons. We also just try to use as many examples as possible. We try and make it fun, interesting and exciting because we believe that if we make it fun and exciting, they’ll want to step into the roles of our future engineers and scientists. Being a kick ass engineer is not only about being able to solve problems, but it’s also about things like being able to communicate effectively, being able to collaborate, being able to prioritise and being able to set goals. Hence, we grow and empower them to be well-rounded individuals, by introducing lessons that focus on the more practical side of life. We provide mentorship, both inside and outside of classrooms. Our tutors not only inspire them within classrooms on a daily basis, but they also provide practical advice to them. We assure them that they have the guidance and support from our program.

[16:05] In order for us to make a significant impact on our youth, we need to be able to build a sustainable model that will empower and expose as many students as possible. Eventually, the hope is that we can build these models into school. Currently, we impact around 20 to 30 students coming through a cohort of KasiMaths. We’ve begun to implement conferences with Mangaung and Westonaria, where we are able to teach them remotely. But, the next step is to spread the lessons from KasiMaths far and wide. Hence, I’ve started working on a scalable prototype that will allow students to be able to access this learning content with minimal data usage and infrastructure costs. The initial plan is to actually roll out these applications at the American Spaces, where they have access to the internet and infrastructure, but eventually we want to allow these applications to work on low-end resolution devices, with offline being a priority for us. We have to cater for African problems.

[17:07] In addition to this, we aim to actually concentrate on foundations for us. So, at a Grade One level, we actually start introducing the English pronunciation of things, phonics, etc, and at a higher level, we then introduce them to concepts like STEM, which they can then apply to whatever options they want for the future. So, we are aware of the government’s plan to introduce robotics from Grade R upwards next year. I personally think that this initiative is admirable and I support any sort of improvements. However, it is unlikely that Grade One learners from previously disadvantaged backgrounds will actually benefit from it, until we can fix their foundations. Thereafter, once they reach the higher grades, we can start introducing things like STEM and robotics and coding. We unfortunately cannot mimic first world countries, because we do not have the infrastructure, resources and foundations that they do.

[18:13] So, let’s work as a community to improve the state of education. Firstly, let’s be aware of the challenges that the youth face, especially in underdeveloped areas. When I started at KasiMaths, it was a rude awakening for me. I was exposed to so much that I didn’t know from the comfort of my home. And so, today I hope I’ve been able to convey that message to you all, and make you aware of the problems that we do have in South Africa in education. Remember that no deed is too small. If there’s some way that you can contribute, then do it. This may be in the form of sponsoring programs, donating old equipment or anything that you think will be useful. In addition, you can perhaps volunteer time to tutor. If you can’t do that, perhaps remotely do some admin work or help with the curriculums.

[19:07] There are other things that companies can do – things like creating learnerships for these students so that they can get some real world experience, or even just raising awareness, just talking to people about the problems and coming up with solutions, that’s also fine. There’s always some way that we can contribute as individuals and as a community. As techies in this room, let’s use our skills to reduce the education gap. We need more of what Google South Africa is doing, that is launching free Wi-Fi in the Cape Flats in the Western Cape, through its Google Station program. We need this at a much bigger scale: We need more read-out-loud features to help those that don’t speak English as a first language, we need low data usage in apps that can work on low-resolution devices, we need ways to distribute low-end smartphones to communities, and we need smart tech people, like yourselves, to be able to teach digital skills to those in under-resourced communities, so that they can get jobs more easily.

[20:13] We need to keep building to do better. We are so much stronger as a community when we collaborate and form strong partnerships with each other. If there are organisations that are doing similar things, let’s help each other to make a greater impact. Let’s not reinvent the wheel over and over again. Instead, let’s learn and grow from each other. As a community, if we do not try and solve these issues, we are deliberately excluding people. We will not be able to create diverse and inclusive places in the workforce, if we are forgetting to invite those in the under-resourced communities, and those that are less fortunate than us.

[20:55] In the long term, by tackling an increase in the quality of education, I strongly believe that we can decrease poverty and we can decrease the violence and crime in South Africa. As South Africans, let’s try and take control of our country and build a brighter future. And of course, I have the Springboks’ photo up there to invoke that excitement and happiness in everyone. Finally, if you have any questions, please find me afterwards – let’s have a discussion around education. You can follow me on Twitter or visit our website. I’d like to end this talk with a quote by one of my heroes, Malcolm X, and Malcolm X says, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Thank you very much.

NOTE: The questions for this presentation were not transcribed.

The questions from MERGE Johannesburg start at 21:25, and the questions from MERGE Cape Town start at 28:03.

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