Want to Get Students Psyched About STEM? Ask Them to Launch a Satellite

Pictured is a commercial satellite in orbit. A South African nongovernmental organization called Meta Economic Development Organization has enlisted the help of some female high school students to launch the country's first private satellite. Erik Simonsen/Getty Images

South Africa, like many other countries, wants to get more young women interested in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). So, in 2015, the country's Meta Economic Development Organization initiated a plan to help them do it. Their ambitious goal? Train 14 female high school students to design and build payloads for Africa's first privately owned satellite.

The first stage of the plan involved special sessions in which a group of students learned to work with electronics by building small robots. This gave the students the familiarity they needed to understand the basics of electronics and programming.

The second stage consisted of a week-long boot camp called Space Trek. Engineers from Cape Peninsula University of Technology provided guidance to a group of participants. The young women designed experiments the satellite will perform. They also built small satellites called CricketSats that weather balloons lofted into high altitudes.

The original plan was to launch the low-Earth orbit satellite called MEDOsat1 by the end of 2016. The current plan is to aim for a launch in May 2017. Once in space, the satellite will send data to Earth twice daily. The students want to monitor changing conditions across the continent of Africa as part of a larger disaster prevention strategy. They also hope to use the data to study where Africans should concentrate agriculture and where they should concentrate reforestation efforts.

In a larger sense, the project leaders hope to transform the STEM landscape in South African schools. According to MEDO, only 7.6 percent of South African students passed math courses with a higher than 60 percent grade. Only 5.5 percent of them passed science with a 60 percent grade. Meanwhile, projections suggest that by 2020 80 percent of all careers will involve STEM in some way.

Programs like the MEDOsat1 project inspire students to explore STEM in a practical, exciting and engaging way. In turn, this will better position students to find a rewarding career after graduation in a rapidly evolving job market. MEDO's goal is to prove that for these women, even the sky is no limit.