In my previous post I talked about how ambitious technology missions or national programs, which are highlighted and are constantly at the fore of the national psyche, have the effect of inspiring a nation to rally around an ambitious cause and attract young people into careers which they may not have initially considered or knew about. I made an example using NASA’s Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s, and how it became a catalyst for America to grow a huge cohort of scientists and engineers. Following from that, I am going to talk about how individual brilliance can also have the same effect, and also inspire many young people to emulate prominent science and technology role models.
You probably don’t know who William Boeing Jnr. is but, his name now graces 1 in every 2 jumbo jets that fly over your head. The Wright brothers’ invention, the aeroplane, and Boeing’s encounter with one example of it inspired him to leave a successful family-owned timber business and set out to form a successful aircraft manufacturing business that spawned the birth of commercial aviation. Similarly, the founders of the iconic motorbike brand, Harley-Davidson, were inspired to position their business to sell bikes to the mass market, after witnessing Henry Ford successfully implement innovations that saw the motorcar become accessible to the common man – Ford’s vision was to see every American household own a car, something which was then the luxury of the ultra rich.
I believe positive role models have a crucial role to play in society. Not only are they prominent individuals who are driven by positive values we can all emulate, but their professional successes also serve as a reference point and blueprint for those who want to follow in their footsteps.
Coming back closer to home, its clear to me that the year 2014 was the “Year of the Lawyer”. Advocate Thuli Madonsela, our Public Protector, and Advocates Gerrie Nel and Barry Roux had very public profiles – even gaining international acclaim. It goes without saying that they have made a career in Law very enticing for South Africa’s school leavers and youth. I am certain that if your were to examine the statistics for applications for entry into local Law schools and Faculties between 2012-2014, you would notice a huge increase in young people interested in becoming an attorney or advocate. This can be attributed largely to the increased [positive] public profile the above mentioned individuals have gained.
I think if South Africa, and Africa in general, hopes to attract many more young people into fields centred around science and engineering, we will need a few local scientists and engineers to gain a lot more publicity beyond scientific circles and catch the attention of society at large. Basically, we need a guy or girl like Tony Stark (Iron Man); superhero adventures aside, Tony Stark is the engineer’s engineer who has made it cool to be a nerd. So cool that people don’t necessarily see him as a nerd. Now Tony Stark is a fictional character but there are real life examples of nerds who have managed to inspire millions – if not billions – of people; Apple’s Steve Jobs and Space X/Tesla Motor’s Elon Musk. The latter is a South African who is making big strides in rocket and electric car technology, even setting a blueprint for NASA to follow. Unfortunately, accomplishing what he has achieved has not had much of an effect in South Africa. It just doesn’t make much of a difference when one reinvents rocket science so far away from home in a country on the other side of the globe, the USA – a country that’s already got a reputation for its engineering know how.
To bring the same level of cool to maths and science locally (and attract bright young minds who would traditionally consider a career in Law, Medicine or Accounting), South Africa needs a local version of Tony Stark who would ply his/her trade locally. Then, similar to local Law schools, local Science and Engineering faculties would experience a significant increase in applications – the 2010 Fifa World Cup had the same effect for civil engineering schools at local universities and universities of technology.
Would Mzansi’s Tony Stark please stand up!