The innovators, tech whizzes and engineers of the future are sitting in classrooms across the globe right now. But not all of them have access to the same teaching methods and resources.

This is true in parts of South Africa, where some students still don’t have regular access to computers and an ICT skills gap threatens future business growth.

To improve science and technology skills and educate potential future employees, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) South Africa (Pty.) Ltd. has teamed up with I-Innovate to develop exciting projects for schools – from space to robotics and AI.

The first was the ExoLab experience at two schools in Cape Town, where students worked on a global experiment with scientists and astronauts on the International Space Station.

“We focus on preparing technology leaders for the future with the skills they need,” explains Nikhil Dabhole, HR Head, South Africa at TCS. “There is a huge need for upskilling the students in South Africa. You will still find students who are touching computers and laptops for the first time.

“We wanted to inspire and engage young learners by giving them a rich and multidisciplinary experience,” he adds.

Astro-plant

The collaboration between TCS and I-Innovate, an organization whose mission is to bring 21st century learning to classrooms, went live in April 2018, when SpaceX’s Dragon CRS-14 was launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on a resupply mission to the ISS.

On board was the ExoLab experiment into the microgravity of living things. Two tubes contained plant seeds, suspended in an agar solution with all the water and nutrients they needed to grow.

Students and teachers from Claremont High School and the Cape Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology were able to change the variables in one of the tubes in their own ExoLab plant-growth chamber, while the other had the same conditions as the box on board ISS. They then tracked the plants’ progress on an online platform.

“TCS has been a critical player in terms of getting this programme to students in South Africa for the first time,” says Trisha Crookes, CEO at I-Innovate.

As well as providing sponsorship, TCS employees also got involved in the project, by mentoring the young students.

“They were able to give hands-on experience because they are the intellectual capital of TCS and they are working with the technology,” says Elpida Agathocleous, Lead CSR at TCS South Africa.

Beyond numbers

It would be easy to measure the impact of the ExoLab experience by the number of students involved – 1,200 – or the number of extra hours of learning they clocked up.

But Crookes says for a truer understanding of how much the project has made a difference, it’s important to look beyond the statistics.

Some were so engaged that they started running their own experiments and are set to mentor students in the year below.

“They’re not only learning about and getting excited about STEM skills, they’re now taking on leadership, collaboration and self-directed learning, which I find really exciting,” says Crookes.

One of the student leaders at Claremont High School has since applied to study aerospace engineering at university.

“We did a letter of recommendation for him and he told us that the experience allowed him to reach beyond the township he grew up in, the circumstances of a marginalized low-income family and really believe that this was something he wanted to do in future.”

It also gave the teachers a confidence boost, as they guided the students through the experience, and connected with teachers in New York, Los Angeles and Germany through the online platform.

“They were able to share some of the difficulties they faced, as well as the successes, and really build this collective support system,” says Crookes. “They said to us they’d never felt so inspired in the classroom because it opened up a whole world of education and educative support to them.”

The wider community also got involved, with reports in local newspapers and open days, so parents and friends could see what the students were working on and ask questions.

Shaping education

Following its success in Cape Town, TCS and I-Innovate are now set to launch an ExoLab programme in Johannesburg, where they’re also running an AI and Robotics for the Future project in the township of Diepsloot.

The idea is that through this learning, students will be able to apply the technologies to solve problems within their own communities.

Crookes says collaborations between companies like TCS and education institutions in South Africa is helping to set a trend.

“It’s really bold that these schools are taking time to adopt new ways of learning and companies like TCS are identifying the needs and benefits of bringing this kind of education into the classroom and really pioneering it,” she says.

As Dabhole notes, these kinds of partnerships can only serve to help everyone in the long-run: “We are catching them young and sparking an interest in IT – and we hope to see some of these students becoming TCS employees one day.”