More than 200 learners as well as teachers from schools in KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape and Gauteng attended this year’s Learners’ Focus Week at the University of Pretoria’s Hatfield Campus.
Established in 2011, the programme is a Department of Energy flagship project focusing on contributing towards awareness on careers in the energy sector. It encourages learners to take up studies in energy programmes and invests in young people to acquire critical skills needed to propel the energy sector, subsequently leading to the growth and development of the South African economy.
At this year’s event, Professor Sunil Maharaj, UP’s Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology, provided an overview of his faculty’s offerings, while Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe told learners the programme “is the Cape Canaveral of dreams”.
“Cape Canaveral is a place in the US where space shuttles are launched. To some, if not all of you, this is where your flight into the stars will be launched. Your dreams of becoming engineers in the energy sector are being shaped and launched here through information that you will be exposed to in the form of presentations and technical tours.”
He added that “for most of us education is [our] only way to escape from poverty. Through the Learners’ Focus Week you are also exposed to the energy value chain and the different types of energy”.
“The person who has information is empowered. However, that empowerment is meaningless if not properly used. Through information that you will gather this week, you will have power to decide on your destiny. You will be empowered to know what is needed for you to gain university acceptance, empowered to know where and how to access funding,” he said.
Bongiwe Mashabane and Baitse Matlhola at the Shell exhibition stand.
The Learners’ Focus Week programme targets learners from rural and no-fee township schools nationally and is a partnership with the Department of Education, provincial departments of education, energy state-owned enterprises and energy and technology companies.
Fifty of the top grade 11 and 12 learners in mathematics, science, engineering and technology are chosen from their provinces to attend the event where they are afforded exposure to careers in the energy sector, while sponsor companies make presentations on bursaries on offer. There are also motivational talks for the learners.
UP first-year mechanical engineering student Baitse Mathlola, who attended Learners’ Focus Week in 2017 and is a holder of a bursary from Shell, said: “I am very grateful for the exposure I received. I thank the Department of Energy and believe more schools from disadvantaged communities should attend the event as they lack the exposure they need.”
He and UP first-year chemical engineering student Bongiwe Mashabane were Learners’ Focus Week ambassadors at the event. For Mashaba, who attended Learners’ Focus Week in 2018, this event “changed my life”.
“If it wasn’t for the Department of Energy my interest in chemical engineering would not have been triggered. The Department of Energy is my second family. I lean on them for support,” she said.
The programme tracks the exam results of learners and links them with sponsors that offer bursaries for study at university. Thereafter it tracks and monitors the bursary recipients’ progress at universities. Should students experience challenges, programme members alert the sponsors.
Resolving energy challenges
According to the Department of Energy, the “programme provides learners with knowledge on the energy sector value chain and different energy careers from each energy subsector such as nuclear, electricity, oil, gas and renewables”.
“Career opportunities in all sectors are discussed to ensure that students have an informed and wider perspective on the energy sector and its value chain. Learners also undertake an educational visit to an energy facility (power plant, refinery) or technology centre or manufacturing company,” says the Department.
As part of the programme, students are expected to prepare a science-based project that focuses on resolving an energy challenge identified in their communities.
“The purpose of the project is to enable learners to demonstrate creativity, innovativeness and ability to apply scientific principles in handling their local energy challenges/problems. A competition is held at provincial level and two successful projects from each province are displayed at the exhibition site of the LFW. Each province enters one project for the competition. The successful project owners are awarded bursaries,” the Department explained.
Nokusola Ngubo, a natural and physical science teacher at Siphapheme High School in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, said she found the event interesting as learners were given exposure to how wide the energy sector is.
“When I go back to school I will organise sessions where I will talk about opportunities in the energy sector. Many learners do not understand how broad the sector is,” she said.