South Africa is calling for improvements in education, especially in the fields of mathematics, science and technology, says Eskom group executive of Sustainability, Dr Steve Lennon. 
At the same time, the global economy is under enormous pressure which is forcing many companies to curtail operations and limit their expenditure in areas of skills development and learning. It has never been more imperative than it is now, to look at more creative ways of expanding the country’s skills base.
At the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists, expanding the country’s skill base is one of the top priorities and Eskom relishes the opportunity to unearth promising learners and put them on the path to academic success.
Over the past six years, approximately 360 531 learners have participated and 15 000 schools have entered the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists, making the Eskom Expo the largest school level science fair in the country and helping to grow the pool of talented young scientists.
In fact, finding young South Africans with a passion for science and the determination to address the world’s problems through innovation is what keeps Lennon coming back year after year.
Science and technology are constantly evolving, it’s what makes these fields so exciting, and these are crucial components for the nation to prosper and achieve better economic growth and in turn job creation.
The UN’s Economic and Social Council, believes science, technology and innovation can play a critical role in each and every Millennium Development Goal by encouraging access to knowledge, promoting renewable energy technologies in order to respond to the dual challenge of reducing energy poverty while mitigating climate change and increasing productivity, industrialisation, economic growth and the creation of decent jobs.
This notion is echoed in the National Development Plan. On presentation of the NDP to parliament, Trevor Manuel, the Minister in the Presidency for the National Planning Commission stressed the importance of a holistic approach to development, with progress across several fronts required over a long period of time.
“Science and technology have and will continue to shape development in ways that open up huge opportunities for humanity in general, including poor countries. Innovation is essential for a middle income country such as South Africa to progress to high income status,” Manuel says.
Lennon couldn’t agree more and it has become increasingly evident in recent years that government alone cannot create the number of jobs needed to counter the adverse effects of poverty. It is incumbent upon business, together with government, to put its shoulder to the wheel to revive the economy and create jobs and skills development programmes to speed up economic growth.
Eskom is currently undertaking a new build programme as well as maintaining and upgrading existing power stations for optimal performance and to meet South Africa’s growing energy needs. The new build programme requires about 24 000 artisans as well as 3 000 scientists and engineers over the next five years. The associated skills development and job creation will support the goals of the NGP National Growth Path (NGP) and the NDP and re-emphasises Eskom’s commitment to the country’s developmental agenda.
This job creation is supported by Eskom’s sponsorship the country’s premier science fair, the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists. As millions across the country go back to school and various institutions of higher learning, the Eskom Expo which is supported by the Department of Science and Technology, will kick into gear.
The Eskom Expo has for 33 years been a useful platform for identifying South Africa’s scientists of tomorrow.
Lennon has always believed that the science fair is a breeding ground for brilliant ideas and identifies and nurtures young talent to encourage learners to pursue studies and careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and innovation (STEMI).
This is born out in the thousands of learners who have been introduced to the wonders and excitement of STEMI careers through the practical applications the Eskom Expo requires.
Over the years the Eskom Expo has developed various partnerships with organisations, businesses, associations, societies and tertiary institutions in these STEMI fields that provide bursaries, cash rewards and scientific equipment to further inspire and incentivise learners to get involved in science.
In 2012 the Eskom Expo became an International Science Fair (ISF) with the inclusion of participants from countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, Namibia, Lesotho and Mexico, taking the reach of this fair beyond South Africa’s borders and bring more African and Central American learners into the science fold.
In addition to these meaningful partnerships which support learners is the Intel Educator Academy which runs parallel to the Eskom Expo and caters for hundreds of educators and delegates from South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Lesotho.
The Academy hosts various workshops aimed at improving the quality of science teaching and helps educators prepare and coach their young learners to perform better at the Eskom Expo.
The Eskom Expo also sends delegations of learners to numerous international science fairs including the prestigious London International Science Forum, Intel ISEF and the Genius Olympiad in New York, to name a few.
Participation at these international events not only makes science more accessible and exciting for youngsters but through the experience participants are groomed to be role models and science ambassadors while also seeing the benefit of knowledge sharing across borders.
The opportunities for young scientists in South Africa are vast. Not only are engineers and scientists highly sought after in traditional industries but the construction of the South Africa Square Kilometre Array (SKA), expected to start in 2016,will create a number of opportunities for young scientists in the country.
The Department of Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan 2010 (IRP2) also presents an exciting period for young scientists who want to venture into research for various renewable energy sources and their viability.
Lennon has also encouraged Eskom Expo Science Fair Directors and Eskom regional coordinators to assist in identifying bursary candidates at regional expos and at national finals. These would be candidates who meet Eskom’s criteria and are intending to pursue careers in Engineering are given opportunities to study by Eskom.
In addition, Eskom’s Research & Development Department (Sustainability Division) is looking for Eskom Expo project ideas which can be developed with the learners to improve their business, bringing sustainability at a high level to this programme.
The true fuel for a booming future economy lies in technical skills. The more society can inspire learners to choose a career in STEMI fields through initiatives like the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists, the better for the future of the country.