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Data science training adds soft skills

In addition to the technical skills, Explore Data Science Academy is now teaching soft skills like self-mastery, professional development, and personal financial management, among many others.

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Young data science students at the Explore Data Science Academy (EDSA) receive essential life skills in addition to technical skills as part of their one year full-time course. The academy believes that a balance of technical and “soft” skills is essential for young graduates when they enter employment for the first time.

Dubbed appropriately as “Thrive”, the EDSA programme is presented by qualified life coaches Nuri Barnard and Megan Hillburn.

Barnard says, “This programme has been running since day one in 2017.  We consider it to be an essential part of job readiness, particularly for young graduates.  Armed with just technical skills, there are risks that graduates may struggle to integrate into the workplace.  However, having gone through the Thrive programme, we believe they will have the requisite skills to thrive in their new jobs, hence the name.”

Hilburn paints a portrait of a typical student.  “We are bowled over by their off-scale intelligence, great hearts, tenacity and willpower.  But many come from disadvantaged, impoverished backgrounds, some from child-headed households, and are unprepared for a post-matric student environment. They have potential galore but often struggle to integrate and cope. Students even ask themselves, ‘why am I here?’ We call this the Imposter Syndrome. ” 

The Thrive programme consists of a series of modules. Barnard says: “We teach subjects such as self-mastery, motivation, financial management, communication, social and work etiquette, personal and professional development and other skills.  The course is compulsory for all our full time students and we track their performance and progress during the year.  There are no exams or grades as such, but successful completion of the modules is required to graduate.”

Teamwork is critical and central to Thrive.  Hillburn says: “In the work environment, data scientists work in teams and at EDSA we teach students to learn from one another and work together on projects.  It’s a steady process as students begin to realise that they have the ability to succeed in this strange new world.  Our top students regularly report that they learn as much from the people around them as from the coaches.  One graduate put it like this: it was like a light switch being turned on. Coaches identify individuals who may be struggling in an area, and we offer them one-on-one coaching.”

Thrive is not just a nice-to-have.  It contributes substantially to the success of the EXPLORE Data Science programme itself.  Over 90% of its graduates find employment within three months of having completed the course, at above-average starting salaries.

EDSA also offers data science students the opportunity to study online. “This is obviously not the same as being on a campus, but we offer a modified version of the course online and remote students can interact with coaches when they need us,” Hilburn says.

From a societal point of view, this type of training impacts entire communities. Barnard says: “This is critically important when we look at the problem of youth unemployment in the country. Many of our students are young and the first person in the family to get tertiary education.  This empowers their wider families and ultimately spreads into local communities.  They become role models and demonstrate practically what is possible if you work hard, use your natural talents and set goals.  Often these young people tutor their peers in the local community. Success can go viral.

“South Africa has a massive pool of talented young people.  At EDSA we have proved that.  But, alongside technical skills, we need to produce fully rounded graduates that can make their mark in life as well as at work.  Also important is the way that these stories spread across communities.  Young South Africans need to understand that they have talents and need the confidence to go out there and find ways of using them.”

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