A scheme to lure women into tech is literally out of this world

MEDO has become the first private company in Africa to attain a satellite and launch. We also have goals of sending a satellite up each year until 2020. Currently South Africa has a total of only 3 satellites that have been sent into orbit, so we are not only pushing the boundaries of firsts, we are effectively pushing the country’s space development culture. This does not come easy, however and over the past year we have encountered many challenges, which can only mean finding more solutions. Article by Carla de Klerk as published on the World Economic Forum Blog.

So why do we focus specifically on Young Women in STEM? In 2014 only 9% of school leavers chose to pursue STEM subjects after school. In the 2015 matric examinations only 10% of matriculants passed Maths and Science with university exemption, where only 23% of matriculants passed Maths with more than 30%. It is predicted that by 2020 80% of all careers will be STEM related. 

It is a fact, we are moving into a technological era. Just look at the world around you, more and more our lives become dependent on technology, smart phones and apps. The global economy is moving away from traditional economic impactors such as “the farmer” or “the miner”. We are now looking at innovative solutions, how can we overcome water and food security challenges. NASA is experimenting with growing lettuce and tomatoes in space, and there are even talks of starting to mine the moon and even comets to stop wasting our own precious and dwindling supplies of minerals. 

The future is definitely exciting. We are, however, faced with an alarming gap as there are less than 10% young women interested in STEM subjects, which translates directly back into the workforce as only 14% of STEM careers worldwide are held by women, a statistic much less in Africa where only 7% of women are currently working in STEM careers. Although there is a STEM problem across all genders, we need to start somewhere and we need to take a stand to ensure that we as a country and continent aren’t left behind in the global economy.

This is why we have developed a programme to inspire young women into STEM by literally having them reach for the stars. We have a huge chasm to cross, so we need a very compelling project, one that is awe inspiring. In the last three years small format satellites have come into their own as a means to collect data of our planet quickly, cheaply and effectively. Our beneficiaries, the young women, will have an active hand in sending up the first private African satellites by designing its payloads, where university graduates will build it. We plan on launching the first of these satellites in the second quarter of 2016.

MEDO (the Meta Economic Development Organisation) has been involved in Economic Development of all spheres since 2011. We have a very specific motto: Building the Economy one job at a time. In this endeavour, we have assisted 1000s of entrepreneurs and businesses, but we have realised we need to engage earlier than the startup phase. In order to truly have an effect on the economy, we need to engage at a school level.

Talking about results and goals, we want to empower young women with a passion and excitement for STEM subjects. We want to send these young women back to their schools as STEM ambassadors, hopefully affecting the students around them with their infectious excitement for these subjects. Nwabisa Sitole, Space Trek graduate and future electrical engineer commented, “I feel inspired, I never imagined myself doing these kinds of things, a girl from a township doing these big and amazing things learning from world renowned astronomers. Words cannot describe how powerful I feel right now.” Sometimes big things start with something as little as a confidence boost, which in the long run will enable young women to follow stereotypically “hard” and “male dominated” fields. Our goal is to have every young woman we work with walk away with a sense of power, confidence and passion.

The MEDO Space Programme is put together in three phases. The first phase of the Space Programme is Space Prep. These are one day workshops delivered at local high schools. Young women grades 9-11 are introduced to satellite concepts and taught the basics of electronics by building a jiggybot, essentially a small robot. We do this through our mobile learning centre, a truck sponsored by ISUZU Trucks which is kitted out to facilitate a workshop of 16 young women.

The second phase of the Space Programme is Space Trek. Space Trek is a one week intensive bootcamp during which 20-30 young women design the experiments they’d like MEDOsat to perform, as well as build and launch their own small satellite a CricketSat which they launch with high altitude weather balloons. Bootcamp is theory focused and practical driven.

Then for the third phase we will be working with Space Trek graduates and space science university students to start designing and implementing the payloads for the MEDO satellites. This gives the women practical experience at university level and also sets up a programme for them to work towards when they themselves become university graduates.

As an economic development agency focusing primarily on entrepreneurs, MEDO was quite out of its depth by transitioning into satellite and youth development. However, with our partnership with the renowned Morehead Space Science Centre in Kentucky, USA’s Dr Benjamin Malphrus and Space Trek Director, Jennifer Carter, we have been fortunate to have been given access to their tried and tested methods and intellectual property from their experience from running Space Trek USA successfully for the past 5 years. For the first Space Trek workshop in January 2016, both Dr Malphrus and Ms Carter were present to walk us through the process to ensure a successful bootcamp. Being the only company granted permission to use the Space Trek concept worldwide, we are in fact implementing one of the most successful and prestigious programmes in Africa, which is a true honour. 

In terms of finding participants, schools have actually been contacting us in the hope of running workshops at their respective schools. We are at a fortunate position that we are working with schools to inspire rather than acting as their competition to educate.

Currently we facilitate 45 Space Prep workshops per year on Saturdays, impacting a potential 700 young women. Last year between June and November, we reached 120 individuals, this year we are looking at 2000 with the help of local universities by training and sending out graduate students to facilitate workshops. For Space Trek, we plan to host 6 bootcamps a year, reaching 180 individuals annually. We are working towards impacting as many individuals across Africa as possible. We are currently forging partnerships with universities across the continent and looking to roll out as far and wide possible as we can only affect change by enabling the masses.

Walking away from the workshops and bootcamps we have run to date, most of the participants decide to follow STEM related degrees after high school. More than that, however, these students go back to school with an energy and vigour for their subjects having goals for the future. We are also following these women with an immense interest to see where they will end up. In the long run, we want to produce engineers, in the short run, however, we need to up our matric passing rate to start setting the youth up for success, regardless of the fields they pursue.

There is a lot of work to be done in both Africa and South Africa especially when it seems the statistics are squared against us. Our aim for the year is to impact as many individuals as possible so that we can affect a generation of passionate young minds to contribute to the economy not only with skills, but with solutions. We are definitely up to that challenge, this is our private sector solution.

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