Judi Sandrock. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Judi Sandrock. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

A LOCAL space programme aimed at encouraging young women to enter the fields of science‚ technology‚ engineering and mathematics (STEM) will culminate with the launch of the first privately owned satellite from Africa in the second quarter of this year.

The Women in STEM programme was launched in June 2015 by The Meta Economic Development Organisation (MEDO)‚ in partnership with Morehead State University in Kentucky in the US‚ a widely recognised and respected 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‚ SA 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 pupils‚ smart TV‚ internet access and an independent power supply for a week’s operation.

According to Ms Sandrock‚ this was launched successfully on June 16 2015 and has reached to date more than 120 young women at their local high schools, where they learned 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 pupils annually.

The second stage of the programme is SpaceTrek‚ a week-long intensive boot camp that was held from January 5 to 11 this year in Worcester. This camp saw 14 selected young women learning about telecommunications‚ satellite-construction‚ calibration and data analysis.

It was also aimed at providing them with the necessary experience to develop the payload for Africa’s first privately owned satellite.

The boot camp saw the pupils launch the CricketSat‚ which they built from scratch‚ into the near-space environment with the help of weather balloons.

The third phase of the programme is the launch of the actual satellite‚ MEDOsat1‚ which will take place in the second quarter of this year on the Mojave Desert in the US.

The pupils will participate in an intensive brainstorming process about the kind of payload the satellite will carry.

All the pupils who have participated in the various programmes will be able to participate in a programme involving the satellite once it has been launched, in which they will be able to communicate with the satellite and experiment with communication and data-gathering, while it is in orbit.

The 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 SA’s future depends highly on people with STEM-focused careers. Every year, fewer learners are selecting (the) STEM subjects required to address the country’s critical skills shortage," Ms Sandrock said.

"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 … nontraditional female paths‚ particularly STEM.

"In addition‚" she said‚ "programmes such as this will hopefully also address 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."