[Press Release] Helping to build Soweto’s tech skills
Silence reigns as the school’s students concentrate on the screens of the brand new computers in front of them. The silence is only broken by the click-clacking of keys as they type. This is Sebetsa-O-Tholemoputso Secondary School, a school in Soweto that – until three weeks ago – did not even have a computer lab.
This school is one of two beneficiaries of an Absa technology team initiative. The other, Teleto Secondary School, will be the beneficiary of a state-of-the-art science lab, which openedon 26 July.
These labs have been built for a very specific purpose: to drive youth skills development and empowerment through support and investment in the communities that will make a real and direct difference in the fields that need it most – science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
“The Absa technology team ran a thorough analysis of all the schools in Soweto, as part of our Technology citizenship planning,” explains Sandra La Bella, who heads up the bank’s technology citizenship activities. “Sebetsa-O-Tholemoputso and Teleto were selected as the two with the highest maths and science results. As our chosen beneficiaries, the schools inform us of their particular needs. The computer and science labs were chosen as the investments that would have the highest value to both the schools and their surrounding communities.”
Each investment includes not only the equipment – collectively worth around R390 000 – but also basic training for the teachers to enable them to make optimal use of the labs and to ensure the initiative is sustainable. The computer lab project also includes lessons for the students’ parents to address a real need for computer literacy within the community. The knowledge passed on to the parents, for example, can then be used to help them with school registration for their children.
As the next step of the project, points out La Bella, Absa is working with a partner to install Wi-Fi to allow students to research and access broader databases and bodies of knowledge, which will give them a good grounding for university and the working world.
The bank’s technology team also intends to send its senior executives to visit these two schools to give lectures on STEM topics and provide mentorship to the students to encourage them to follow careers in these fields. The bank will monitor progress and supplement the centres with equipment or provide assistance with additional training as and when needed in both the medium and long term.
Altogether, the initiatives have the potential to grow and impact much broader communities. “Already the computer lab is helping the 1 700 students of the school and a number of their parents, and the science lab is expected to assist a further 825 Grade 8-12 life science and science students,” says La Bella.
It was, in fact, in trying to develop the employability and entrepreneurial skills of these youth that the idea for the two labs originated. The concept was born five years ago as part of the bank’s ‘Bring a girl/boy child to work day’ initiative, which aimed to teach children what it would be like to work in technology in a corporate environment – and helping to bust the myth that working in technology only relates to IT.
This led to the introduction of a career day, which featured the bank’s suppliers speaking to children to build their knowledge of the sector and to inspire them to pursue study opportunities in the space. That led to a project to introduce and update digital libraries at beneficiary schools. All of these interventions were so successful that they have become annual events.
But the bank found that there was still room for growth and so three years ago started Girls in Tech, a multi-year programme through which the bank engages with female learners on an ongoing basis throughout their high school careers to expose them to technology environments and opportunities.
As part of this, the students spend a week learning to code at the bank’s Digital Academy. While it proved very popular with the learners, the students typically only had access to these computers to practice coding during that one week, which meant that their newly acquired skills could quickly fall by the wayside.
The building of the two labs means that students now have virtually year-round access. “Besides raising funds, we also re-purposed older bank computers to equip the labs, which ensures this intervention is low cost, but high value, and makes a real difference to the communities that require it,” says La Bella. “And we are already seeing the positive impact, with overwhelming feedback from the first school.”
La Bella adds that the teams hopes the initiatives will have a snowball effect with far-reaching impacts for not only the students and their communities, but also for the companies that they will eventually work for – or start – themselves.
Ultimately, the initiative and the broader objective of preparing the youth for the working world falls into Absa’s Shared Growth strategy of partnering with the communities in which the bank operates to create long-lasting and sustainable solutions to the challenges South Africa faces. It focuses on the key pillars of education, enterprise development and financial inclusion.
“Shared Growth through education is a primary reason why we created the school labs,” says La Bella. “We believe strongly that infrastructure, training, inspiration and industry exposure leads to real sustainability and collective growth as a nation.”