By Graham Du Plessis
Lift off! Africa’s first ever private satellite is to be launched in mid-2016. What makes this exciting story all the more extraordinary, is that it is South African schoolgirls who are helping to construct the payload for the satellite.
MEDO (The Meta Economic Development Organisation) has been running an inspiring project in South Africa, introducing pre-matriculation young women to Science and Maths. The project has concentrated on organising weekend “SPACEPrep” electronics workshops as well as week-long “SPACETrek” camps during the school holidays.
Many South African businesses have cited the lack of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) graduates as limiting factors when it comes to growing their businesses. As a result, the National Development Plan (which has support across most of the political spectrum) stresses the importance of addressing these issues in order to develop the manufacturing sector, increase mineral beneficiation, and tackle inequality.
MEDO is offering a private sector solution and hopes to inspire young women to pursue careers in fields that have traditionally been dominated by men. Judi Sandrock CEO highlights the fact that although 80% of future jobs will require persons with a STEM background, at the moment, women are poorly represented on STEM degree courses and within STEM professions.
After making robots at one of the workshops, several of the budding young scientists admitted that while they had initially considered Science and Technology to be “male” subjects, they now felt enthused and excited about the possibility of a career within a STEM field.
The project (in collaboration with Morehead State University and sponsored by Isuzu Trucks) is a refreshing initiative which aims to combat critical skills shortages, as well as challenge stereotypes. The plan is to launch satellites every year as part of a decade-long project, using the journey towards each launch as an opportunity to ignite interest in Science and develop engineering skills. In early 2016, MEDO will also establish a Not For Profit arm within the UK, in order that the programme can be extended to other African countries.
In the meantime, a select group of young women will take part in a week-long course in January, where they will launch a smaller satellite, using a weather balloon. The preparatory “SPACETrek” course will enable them to develop the skills they will require for the main launch in mid-2016.
It will be interesting to follow the skyrocketing careers of these young women!