South Africa is in desperate need of qualified scientists and engineers. While some debate exists around the exact shortfall, there is near-unanimous agreement that we simply do not have enough.

Compounding this, only 11% of engineers globally are female according to an article published by UNESCO in October 2017.  This is a worldwide phenomenon, despite a rising global demand for qualified science, technology, engineering and, maths (STEM) professionals. This is why initiatives such as the International Day for Women and Girls in Science, on 11 February, are important in helping shine the spotlight on the participation of women and girls in STEM careers.

In South Africa, industries like mining feel this shortfall keenly. A few years ago, Anglo American became aware of a funding shortfall for a Science Centre at Parktown High School for Girls and made a multi-million Rand investment that is already impacting this skills gap.  Investing in the school’s Science Centre presented an opportunity to show female learners the practical relevance of science and engineering, and to open up the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields as viable career options for young girls.

Following Anglo American’s contribution, the construction of two conjoined laboratory and classroom facilities for life sciences, physics and chemistry began in 2015 and the science centre was opened in late 2016 to the school’s 1 100 pupils. Its effect was almost immediate: 30% more Grade 9 girls chose the sciences as matric subjects.

Parktown High School for Girls is a government high school in Johannesburg that serves a diverse grouping of girls across class, race, and culture, and happens to be one of Gauteng’s province top-performing schools. It boasts a consistent 100% matric pass rate and achieved a 97% Bachelor Degree entrance rate in the 2017 matric results.  The school has been acknowledged by the University of the Witwatersrand as its top feeder school.

Tracey Megom, Principal at Parktown High School for Girls, says the idea for the centre was born 15 years ago, but the school initially struggled to come up with the money to build it, so parents started fundraising and looking for partners.

Anglo American, through its Chairman’s Fund, co-invested in the project in January 2015. “Without that funding, it might have taken us another three to four years to complete the project”, says Megom.

Last year’s matric class was the first to benefit, and the results are telling: 39% of matric learners achieved a distinction in the Physical Sciences; up from 23% in 2014.

In the larger context of South Africa’s STEM skills shortage, this result is massively encouraging. A study by the Engineering Council of South Africa estimated the total number of engineers, technologists, and technicians working in the country at 120 000, well below the number required to drive the economy – and the country – forward. This deficit is putting government’s 15-year R3.2 trillion infrastructure development project in peril. And when you take a closer look, the engineers that are graduating are mostly male, perpetuating the under-representation of women within the STEM fields.

But, feedback from Parktown High School for Girls is that recent interest in STEM subjects has resulted in close to half of the senior classes – around 112 learners per grade – now choosing physical science as a matric subject.

STEM skills are the foundation upon which our country’s development and future prosperity is built. Not only are they the skills that will take the mining sector forward, but a groundswell of new engineering talent is imperative to liberate our country from underdevelopment. It is imperative that we do everything within our power to instill a passion for the STEM fields in our young people.

Those already working in related fields need to find ways of showing learners, especially young women, the real power of STEM to build a better future. Take them on site visits, invite them for job shadowing, encourage internships, donate equipment for school laboratories—do whatever it takes to ignite the spark that brings more of our youth into the STEM fold. The future of our country, will be built on the work of these young engineers, technologists, and technicians.

Megom says that the Centre’s effect will be felt even more keenly in the future. “There will be more girls doing science and, obviously, having access to a great facility encourages them to work hard. These learners will then presumably pursue science and engineering qualifications at university and will go on to meaningfully fill gaps within the under-represented STEM sectors, ultimately progress in our country.”