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I Am UWC: STEM Mentor Mmaki Jantjies

I Am UWC: Dr Mmaki Jantjies on Mentoring, Learning and Using Technology To Transform Education, Business and the World

“There are many historical challenges that still plague our schools: high learner ratios; the limited number of teachers skilled in technology and mathematics; not to mention the limited access of learners to technological resources. If we want to make a real change in society and the economy, we need to address those challenges with all the resources at our disposal.”

So says Dr Mmaki Jantjies, Head of Information Systems at the University of the Western Cape (UWC)...and holder of a Google grant to develop curricula and teach teachers how to use technology to support computer science learning in schools, finalist in the MTN/Kagiso Media Women in ICT Partnership For Change Awards, panellist at the 2017 G20 Women 20 Dialogue in Germany, one of the Mail & Guardian Young 200 Top Top Achievers Under 35 for 2017.

Dr Jantjies believes that following our passion can achieve great things – and her passion is for promoting the uptake of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects by children in disadvantaged communities. It’s a useful aim in a world where technology in schools has moved from being a privilege to being a necessity, considering the swift growth of ICT across every sector, and the importance of technical and basic office skills in the workplace.

“I dedicate much of my research to seeing how can develop mobile learning software systems, accessible in South African languages in STEM subjects, that support teaching and learning in this area,” she says. “In developing various adaptive mobile systems, I hope to address the existing contextual challenges in these sectors.”

One of the first black South African women to obtain a PhD, Dr Jantjies holds degrees from four universities (in South Africa and beyond), and has taught at three, greatly contributing to research on mobile learning technology development for mathematics and science in South African schools, with a focus on multilingual content presentation.

“My parents are both community builders,” Dr Jantjies says, “and this influenced me in my approach to a career: I wanted to be an engineer who could help build systems and policies that help make people’s lives better - and and computer science (which I found fascinating) allowed me to do just that. I also grew up a family that respects God and the importance of loving your neighbour as you would love yourself. We thus also hold this value in my family.”

So when she completed her studies, she was compelled to become part of the movement to contextualize technology and content to enable her fellow South Africans to create and innovate. And it’s definitely been worth it.

“Being able to impact society through education and research on technology is the most fulfilling experience,” she notes, “as you always see the impact of the change you bring in your greater society.”

Women In Tech: Standing Together For Better Solutions For All

Dr Jantjies continues to research how education technology can be developed and used to enhance learning in developing countries. And one of the main issues Dr Jantjies is tackling is the lack of diversity in the technology space – and for the digital economy to reach its full potential, all people need opportunities to come up with game-changing ideas and to code their own solutions to challenges.

“The number of female software and online content developers from diverse backgrounds (linguistic, cultural and racial) is low – which affects the type of technology solutions developed, Dr Jantjies explains. “Low access to or high cost of Internet access hinders women from diverse backgrounds from getting the benefits that come with being online. And the lack of role models from diverse backgrounds leads to young women not feeling inspired to join STEM-related fields.”

To help fix this issue, Dr Jantjies serves as the coordinator of the Mozilla and UN Women technology clubs for young girls which has grown to include co-education clubs– creating safe spaces for young women and men from Cape Town township high schools to learn information and communication technology (ICT) skills, imparting leadership skills, and enabling them to make use of the web for their own betterment, and that of others.

“With these clubs, we wanted to stimulate the idea of having a career in tech, while providing the necessary skills and providing positive role models to follow. We want for the younger children who come into their Mozilla Club to feel like, ‘Wow, this tech club – it’s like a debating club or chess club; it’s fun to be part of even while I learn.’ And even if they don’t choose a career in tech, they get the basics of tech before going on to university, while also creating a safe space where they can also talk about women’s and girl's’ issues.”

The idea is not to tell women what they should do with their lives - it’s to present them with the skills necessary to pursue their own dreams; and the inspiration and insight to discover those dreams for themselves.

“My advice to young women: find your passion, and never allow anything or anyone, including life challenges, to dictate your career and your life path to achieving your goals,” she says.