Re-Engineering Students and Teachers

A senior member works to introduce engineering technology classes to South African youngsters

8 January 2010

How do you get a country up to speed in science and technology education when most of the teachers don’t have the training nor the necessary materials?

That is the major challenge IEEE Senior Member Nico Beute has faced during his four-year effort to introduce engineering technology classes to South African youngsters. The classes are part of a national educational initiative to transform South Africa from a regional manufacturer to a global, knowledge-based economy.

“If we don’t increase the number of engineers in our country, we won’t become globally competitive,” Beute says. “We need to grow economically in the same way as have other countries, such as China.”

His efforts are part of the IEEE Teacher In-Service Program, through which IEEE volunteers hold workshops to teach educators about engineering and technology, as well as how they can interest students in the subjects. Since 2001, some 315 000 students worldwide have participated in lesson plans their teachers learned through TISP workshops.

Beute, 69, is spearheading the TISP expansion into South Africa—his home since emigrating from Holland with his family at age 13. Between duties as an electrical engineering professor and assistant dean at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, he spends 10 volunteer hours per week working with the South African government to hone a curriculum that introduces engineering to Grades 4 through 12. His efforts last year earned him an IEEE Educational Activities Board Meritorious Achievement Award in Informal Education, which he accepted at a ceremony in November in New Brunswick, N.J.

Concerned with the increasing number of students unprepared for university-level engineering studies, Beute and a team of some 30 volunteer educators and engineers, who originally met at South Africa’s first TISP workshop in 2006, joined forces to develop support material for educators. Although teachers were enthusiastic, Beute and his team soon found themselves up against formidable obstacles. There weren’t enough suitable textbooks for engineering-related subjects. Beute also found the teachers often needed remedial courses in the subjects.

“South African teachers do think engineering is a good thing to teach, but their knowledge of math, science, and technology is very limited,” he says.

Undeterred, he took his ideas in early 2006 to South Africa’s Department of Education (DOE) and worked with it to develop courses for students and teachers. For 18 months, Beute and his team devised courses for students ages 8 to 18 in electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering, as well as real-life applications, often through hands-on projects. They also structured workshops to train educators on how to teach the subjects.

Many of the teachers are not science educators but former woodworking and metal shop instructors whose subjects were being phased out.

Beute’s initiative included working with provincial education departments to tweak curricula according to local needs. He also got professional engineers—usually through engineering institutes—to volunteer to help develop materials to train teachers and prepare them to teach technology- and engineering-related subjects.

Beute’s team budgeted US $400 000—forthcoming mostly from the DOE, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the Engineering Council of South Africa, industry, as well as IEEE and other engineering societies—for workshops, a conference, and teaching materials. The program began in August 2006 for Grades 10 to 12, then rolled out to earlier grades beginning in 2008.

The team has only just tapped the surface. Rather than upgrading each of the 150 schools with engineering programs individually, Beute and his team ran centralized workshops around the country for engineering teachers. Beute’s goal is to see the TISP eventually help all of South Africa’s 30 000 schools. For these schools, Beute is planning a conference to take place by July to introduce the new curriculum to the DOE’s 150 regional subject advisors overseeing technology education—who then can take it to schools in their regions.

“The challenge is to reach all primary and secondary school teachers in South Africa who teach technology- and engineering-related subjects,” he says. “We’re hoping to interest students in engineering and give them enough of a background to enable them to pursue it at university if they want.”

Beute became interested in the TISP when he attended the 1998 IEEE Technological Literacy Counts workshop, a TISP precursor held in Baltimore. It brought together educators and engineers to address ways to enhance technological literacy in preuniversity students. That led to an early TISP workshop in Chicago in 2001, which he also attended, and more workshops around the world after that.

Beute says he always has believed that promoting math, science, and engineering—especially to preuniversity students—in South Africa is the key to economic growth, and the first step in eradicating poverty.

His early interest in engineering stemmed from his exposure to his father’s work as an electrician. Beute earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in EE from the University of Stellenbosch in 1962 and 1965, and then worked as an engineer with the South African Transport Services, which operated the country’s national railway, and M&I, a marine engineering company—both in the Cape Town area. He joined the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (then Cape College for Advanced Technical Education) in 1969, becoming dean of the engineering faculty by 2000. Meanwhile, he earned a Ph.D. in EE at North-West University in Potchefstroom, near Cape Town. He retired as dean in 2005, but stayed on as a professor and, in November, stepped in as assistant dean. He has been a member of the IEEE South Africa Section since 1996, serving as its 2003–04 and 2007–08 chair.

“I just want schoolchildren to have a better idea of what engineers do, and make the children aware of engineers’ many achievements,” he says. “Then those with the appropriate skills and interests will become engineers and help build a better future for all in South Africa.”

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