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Space programme promoting women in STEM

Dr Ben Malphrus and Jennifer Carter from Morehead University. Dr Ben Malphrus and Jennifer Carter from Morehead University.

June 2015 saw MEDO, The Meta Economic Development Organisation, launching an ambitious Space Programme with the aim of encouraging young women to enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related fields. Working with sponsors, ISUZU Trucks South Africa, MEDO also bought the first privately owned satellite in Africa with the goal of having female high school learners designing its payload. The programme was launched in partnership with Morehead State University in Kentucky, USA, a highly recognised research and development centre in nano-satellite technologies. Morehead State University runs a similar project, SpaceTrek, which has seen positive results in encouraging young women to enter what is still perceived by many as male orientated fields or careers. Outside of the US, South Africa is the first and only country worldwide that has received the go ahead from the Morehead Space Science Centre to run the programme against competing countries in South America and Europe.

MEDO’s programme was developed in response to the organisation’s observation that many corporates it works with experience a lack of skilled STEM employees. “By 2020, 80% of all future jobs will be STEM related, with almost double the pay of non-STEM related careers. So what we are trying to do is to give these young women the best chance out there,” MEDO CEO Judi Sandrock explains.

The programme has been divided into three stages, starting with SpacePrep workshops. These workshops are four hour events held every Saturday in MEDO’s mobile lab – the Treppie Truck - which is equipped with room for 16 learners, smart TV, Internet access and an independent power supply for a week’s operation. This was successfully launched on 16 June 2015 and has to date reached over 120 young women at their local high schools where they learnt the basics of electro-mechanics by building a mini robot, or Jiggybot, from scratch.

SpacePrep will continue to run throughout the year and aims to reach 600 learners annually.

The second stage of the programme is SpaceTrek, a week-long intensive boot camp – which was held from 5to 11 January 2016 at High Africa Conference Centre in Worcester. This camp saw 14 selected young women learning about telecommunications, satellite construction, calibration, and data analysis. Workshops and lectures were led by Jennifer Carter, SpaceTrek USA Director as well as an all-female team from both South Africa and the USA. Each day consisted of a series of group activities, guest presentations and had a dedicated theme designed to further the learners’ knowledge in STEM and to provide them with the necessary experience to develop the payload for Africa’s first privately owned satellite.

Day one of the boot camp explained the mission introduction and the information on the Earth’s atmosphere. Day two was dedicated to electricity, components, schematics, multimeter and soldering. Day three taught CricketSat construction and calibration. Day four educated the girls on telecommunications and radio building. Day five saw them launching the CricketSat, which the learners built from scratch, into near space environment with the help of weather balloons. The learners manned the ground station themselves and gathered the data which they later analysed. On the last day of the boot camp, the young women presented their findings to scientists, professors and business men and women in Cape Town.

At the presentation day on the 11th of January 2016, Jennifer Carter – Craft Academy, Assistant Director of Academic Services, Morehead State University and SpaceTrek USA Director, as well as Professor Benjamin Malphrus – Space Science Centre, Director and Department Chair Program Earth and Space Sciences of Morehead State University - gave short presentations where after members of SpaceTrek USA alumni did a presentation of what SpaceTrek meant for them.

The third phase of the programme is the launch of the actual satellite, MEDOsat1, which will happen in the second quarter of 2016 from the Mojave Desert in the USA. The learners will participate in an intensive brainstorming process the kind of payload the satellite will carry. Once launched, all learners who have participated in the various programmes, will be able to participate in a programme where the will be able to communicate with the satellite and experiment with communication and data gathering while it is in orbit.

This Women in Stem programme will run for the next four years with a satellite launch planned each year.

“This South African Women in STEM programme aims to make a sustainable, measurable impact in Africa and understands that South Africa’s future depends highly on people with STEM focused careers. Every year fewer learners are selecting STEM subjects required to address the country's critical skills shortage. It is important that we focus on developing a significant number of young people with STEM focused careers in order to compete internationally. Currently STEM focused careers are dominated by men, thus the Women in STEM programme aims to inspire young women to pursue careers that are considered as non-traditional female paths, particularly STEM, In addition programmes such as this will hopefully also address the issues such as the lagging Matric results in STEM subjects. It is all our responsibility to educate and inspire the nation’s children - parents, schools, corporates and government.” says Judi Sandrock, CEO of MEDO.

“Historically people were excluded from learning subjects such as Maths and Science, so there is a legacy with some parents of not necessarily encouraging the youth to pursue careers in these fields. This is where we believe we can make an impact in assisting parents in creating this inspiration in our children and the desire to pursue careers in STEM” concludes Sandrock.

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