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The journey begins ...

March 1, 2010

The last year or so has been a fascinating roller-coaster ride of excitement and frustration as a small team of us worked to set up the Sasol Inzalo Foundation, whose goal is to be a pioneer and leader in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education systems reform in South Africa. We’ve met new wonderful, passionate people, but also rediscovered an amazing number of friends from the past; we’ve experienced so many unbelievable coincidences that we’ve stopped to be surprised by serendipity, and the intellectual challenge of engaging with complex ideas has more than made up for the frustrations of grappling with the South African education system and its stakeholders.

As this journey forms the backdrop to much of what I want to write about, let me start with some background about the Foundation: it was set up recently by Sasol, a large South African petrochemical company, and the world’s largest producer of synthetic fuels, hence the STEM focus. However, the Foundation has an independent board and our mandate is to focus on STEM skills development and capacity building for South Africa, not on Sasol’s future talent needs (although Sasol will benefit indirectly too, of course).

The current reality of the South African STEM education landscape is rather bleak. As in many other democratizing countries, there has been a huge drive to get all children into school, but the education system simply did not have the capacity to produce good results in the face of massification. South Africa performs poorly on almost all international education benchmarks, and there is a general despondency that the education system is not delivering on expectations. Moreover, despite significant public and private spending, the picture has not really changed for decades. So our team decided to not throw good money after bad by giving more grants, but rather to position the Foundation as a pioneer and leader in Maths and Science education systems reform, collaborating (as an operating Foundation) with others who share our vision and engaging with influencers and decision makers, in order to have a meaningful impact on the system.

But we needed a fresh approach – the traditional ones did not seem to work and many change agents were getting exhausted. We also wanted to put gathering evidence and impact assessment at the core of what we do, as many existing interventions were based on what could at best be called anecdotal evidence. When I met Sonja and Aiden from the Narrative Lab and Mpho Letlape, the Foundation’s MD, realized she knew Dave from IBM, things just fell into place. We purchased a SenseMaker site license, and plan to use it to underpin all our work. Wherever we share our plans, people get excited – our different approach has provided an injection of energy for many.

One of our first projects is a bursary scheme for engineering and science undergraduate students, with the aim of understanding how to make a diverse range of students successful (throughput is a major issue in South Africa). We are currently putting the final touches to the signifier design to track the affective aspects of the students’ experiences with SenseMaker – more about this in future blogs.

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