Girls encouraged to reach for the stars

It is believed that 80% of jobs in the future will need studies in the Stem subjects, but only 10% of schoolgirls have an interest in maths and science. MEDO has a plan to change that.

 MEDO_welding_jiggybots_article A project recently launched, aims to train about 150 high school girls in science and technology activities, and design a payload for Africa’s first private satellite. (Image: MEDO)

Melissa Javan

High school girls are on the road to launching Africa‘s first private satellite in 2016, through a project started in Cape Town earlier this year, called Young Women in Stem.

The Micro Enterprise Development Organisation (MEDO) founded this five-year project to encourage underprivileged girls and young women to choose to study science, technology, engineering and applied mathematics – the Stem subjects – with a view to following a career in one of these fields.

Judi Sandrock, the chief executive officer of MEDO, told the South African Broadcasting Corporation that 80% of jobs and opportunities in the future would be Stem-related. “I ask high school learners to focus on maths and science because it opens up a world of opportunities later on.”

The ultimate aim of the project is to construct the payload to be launched with Africa’s first ever private satellite. “We have to send the completed satellite to the US early next year,” Sandrock said.

“It would have numerous satellite launches over the next five years, Sandrock explained. The first satellite was scheduled for launch in the second quarter of 2016. “We certainly know we are going to be learning a lot while going on. Probably the programme will morph and change a little bit as we go along.

MEDO’s programme for high school girls includes one-day workshops. Sandrock explained that during these workshops, the schoolgirls started working with different electronics. “We then go on to weeklong boot camps. We have one in October during the school holidays and another in December.

“During the December boot camp, we will be putting together the final design and structure of the payload of the satellite,” she said.

Interviewed on the Expresso television breakfast show, Sandrock said the idea to build the private satellite came when they realised there was a massive growing industry in the private sector when it came to small satellites. “What we’ve done is that we purchased a small satellite to launch next year.

“We have decided in order to design the payload for that satellite, we would give the opportunity to high school learners to do exactly that. We want to inspire young women to get involved in the field,” she said.

Bjarke Gotfredsen, a founder of MEDO, said 19 girls from grades 10 to 12 participated in the first young women in Stem workshop in June. “They were from five high schools in the Cape Town area.”

The programme is divided into three stages: Space Prep, Space Trek and the actual satellite development. Space Prep is the first stage, during which the one-day workshops take place.

It is followed by Space Trek, during which weeklong camps take place in the school holidays. The participants design their satellite payload experiments during the week, as well as test them using high altitude weather balloons. Those who will attend the camp will be identified at the Space Prep workshops.

Approximately 25 girls and young women will participate in the final stage of the satellite development. They will do this in conjunction with Morehead State University of the United States.

Gotfredsen said MEDO was planning to roll out a regular programme of Stem workshops soon. It would include events that coincide with Women’s Month in August and International Girls Day in October.

“The next Space Prep will be in George. We have planned to train 150 more high school learners before 4 October, so a number of tours (Space Preps) have been planned and are ready to roll out. The first Space Trek is, as mentioned, going to take place from 4 to 11 October.”

With the current sponsor, the group could only afford to work in one province, the Western Cape, he said.

 MEDO_earth_sat_article The deadline to launch Africa’s first private satellite is next year.

 MEDO_sat_1_article The girls who are chosen out of more than 150 participants will design a payload for a satellite that looks like this.

According to Gotfredsen, MEDO bought the satellite from Interorbital Systems. It was one of more than 50 institutions from all over the world that bought satellites.

MEDO’s Carla de Klerk defined maths and science as fields of problem solving. “If you look at South Africa especially, we have structural problems that need solving.”

Less than 10% of girls at school level showed an interest in maths and science, she said. “We really need girls to get interested, get those girls growing with it.”

MEDO is an independent company that helps larger organisations get their BBBEE goals, with a specific focus on enterprise and supplier development as well as socio-economic development.

In explaining its decision to start this young women in Stem project, MEDO said: “We have a Stem problem. It is predicted that 80% of jobs require a Stem background where only 10% of young women in school currently have an interest in maths and science… We need to get our schoolgirls into Stem and MEDO has decided to address the issue by allowing them to design a satellite.”

After partnering with big business in their supplier and enterprise development programmes, MEDO said it realised that there was “a considerable shortage of technical skills required to fulfil the technical needs of businesses in this country”.