Young SA women tackle STEM with satellites

March 1st, 2016, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT

Carla de Klerk holding up a cricketsat, a small device launched on a weather balloon during the SpaceTrek camp.

Carla de Klerk holding a cricketsat, a small device launched on a weather balloon during the SpaceTrek camp.


Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are today considered the area where most education systems make little impact. And yet STEM is one of the most important building blocks for young people to get into the mainstream of the economy. It is predicted that 80% of jobs require a STEM background; and only 10% of young women in school currently have an interest in maths and science. To add some controversy, careers in STEM pay almost double per hour than non-STEM careers.

The Meta Economic Development Organisation (MEDO) 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.  Now they are planning to launch their own satellite with payloads developed and built by young women.

MEDO works with a range of successful, and soon-to-be successful entrepreneurs, advising them every step of the way. To do this they work with prominent local and multinational companies and with the Department of Trade and Industry funding programmes.

The Young Women in STEM programme is sponsored by Isuzu Trucks and presented in collaboration with Morehead State University in the USA . It focuses on young women in high school, with the ultimate aim of then constructing the payload of Africa’s first private CubeSat. MEDO is planning to launch its satellite in the third quarter of this year, however this date is likely to slip till next year because of long launch lead times and licensing requirements.

“Our programme features SPACEPrep half-day workshops introducing young women to electronics and the basics of practical science,” said Carla de Klerk, MEDO’s space programme manager. “By the end of the day each participant has built and soldered their own Jiggy Bot – from scratch – that can be controlled in movement, light and sound.”

SPACETrek is a week-long camp during school holidays in which the young women design their satellite payload experiments, and test them using high altitude weather balloons and radio communication. The camp attendees are identified at the SPACEPrep workshops and then during extended school holiday internships with MEDO they will finalise payload designs and build the satellite for launch.

“The intention of this programme is not to be a once off – it is to be the start of at least a decade-long drive to inspire young people to enter the science and technical fields.”

In 2015, MEDO became the first private company in Africa to buy a satellite and launch. “We knew we were going to do something big with the satellite and STEM, however, we didn’t have a clear idea until recently when we did a tour of the USA and found Morehead State University’s Space Science Centre. They run a very similar programme focused on getting young women into various space programmes for which they have a 100% success rate, in fact every young women in the space science degree took part in Space Trek,” De Klerk said.

The most commonly asked question is how to get a group of high school girls with no skills to design a very expensive satellite? According to MEDO the answer is simple: These young women are the future of the country, and if MEDO doesn’t teach them these skills, teach them to think innovatively and take on such a big responsibility, who will?  MEDO is working with various experts, such as Dr. Ben Malphrus from the Morehead State Space Science Centre.

The group recently entered into a cooperation agreement with the Cape Peninsula University of Technology which launched a successful satellite, TshipisoSat, two years ago and is now working on several other satellite projects.

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