Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Sisters are building robots for themselves

All over the world, the perception that maths and science are predominantly of interest to boys rather than girls is being challenged. This Youth Day saw a group of schoolgirls gathered in Cape Town building their own robots. It’s the first step in a programme that will eventually see young women build the technology for Africa’s first private satellite. By REBECCA DAVIS.

It’s a rainy Youth Day in Cape Town, and on the top floor of a mid-town skyscraper, the youth are anything but idle. Around 20 young women are busily soldering, fiddling with circuits and clipping wires with pliers. In small groups, they are engaged in building Jiggy Bots: small robots that can be controlled in movement, light and sound.

Drawn from six high schools around the Cape Peninsula, they are participating in the first workshop of what will eventually culminate in the building of the technology for Africa’s first private satellite. The project, spearheaded by the Meta Economic Development Organisation (Medo), is aimed at helping young women build up technical skills before they leave school.

The reality is, half the young women in this room, when they matriculate, are not going to have formal jobs,” CEO Judi Sandrock says. “We have to start a lot earlier.”

Sandrock points to figures showing that in 2014, only 7.5% of South Africa’s matric students passed maths with more than 60%. For physical science, the figure was even lower. This is a problem, Sandrock says, because by some estimates 80% of future jobs will require an education in Science, Tech, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem).

This is a private sector solution,” Sandrock says.

The building of the Jiggy Bots on Youth Day was intended as an introduction to electronics, and similar workshops will be held monthly in different communities. Selected students will then participate in a week-long boot camp to build the payload for the satellite. In the December holidays, students will participate in a special ‘Space programme’, which will then see the satellite they’ve worked on sent to the Mojave Desert in California for launch.


Photo: Matthew Goniwe’s Ovaya Mandlakhe (right) builds the fastest bot in the room (Rebecca Davis)

Medo’s initiative comes just days after a furore around sexism in science, prompted by comments made by British Nobel laureate Tim Hunt that laboratories should be gender-segregated because female scientists are a distraction.

Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry,” Hunt told a conference of science journalists meeting in Seoul. In the subsequent uproar, Hunt was stripped of several of his positions. Female scientists, meanwhile, struck back with the hashtag #distractinglysexy to post pictures of themselves in decidedly un-sexy poses on the job.

Try telling the young woman at Medo’s robot workshop that science is for boys, though, and they look at you as if you’re mad.

Jeez, that’s not true,” says Ovaya Mandlakhe, a Grade 12 student at Matthew Goniwe High School, her eyes widening. “At my school, girls are better [at science] than boys!”

South Peninsula High’s Imaan Shaik, also a Grade 12 student, expresses similar surprise at the notion. “Anyone can do anything! There’s no such thing that boys are better than girls,” she says.

Mandlakhe’s favourite subject at school is life sciences. “I want to study medicine,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor.”

Shaik says she’s going to be an analytical chemist. Sesuthu Mshumi, from Sinenjongo Senior Secondary School, believes her future lies in mechanical engineering, due to her love for maths.

Pelican Park High School deputy principal Shafee Willenberg describes it as a “major priority” to get girls the necessary support to pursue careers in maths, science and technology.

They are there, they have the talent but they don’t get where they’re supposed to be,” Willenberg says. He describes it “only right and only fair” that young women be galvanised to take opportunities in these areas.

Asked what he thinks of the old chestnut that female students are simply less interested in maths and technology, Willenberg responds, “I do think it’s a myth. Better performers [in these subjects] more often than not are girls”.

The afternoon is drawing to a close, and the students get ready to race their Jiggy Bots against each other. “My leg doesn’t want to work properly now,” one complains, tinkering with her device. The races begin in an atmosphere of excitement. Some of the bots wander around in a slightly drunken manner. Others move with bewildering speed, straight as an arrow down the racetrack. There are scenes of high drama before the final, when one of the finalists’ bots loses a leg.

Mandlakhe’s bot emerges victorious. Cradling her certificate with pride afterwards, she says she’s named her little contraption Junior.

It was a shock, it was so fast!” Mandlakhe marvels. DM

Photo: Students from Sinenjongo Senior Secondary School work on the construction of their ‘Jiggy Bots’ (Rebecca Davis)


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