South Africa is in desperate need of qualified scientists and engineers. Compounding this, only 11% of engineers globally are female according to an article published by UNESCO in October 2017. This is a worldwide phenomenon, despite a rising global demand for qualified science, technology, engineering and, maths (STEM) professionals.
Tracey Megom, Principal at Parktown High School for Girls, says the idea for a Science Centre was born 15 years ago, but the school initially struggled to come up with the money to build it, so parents started fundraising and looking for partners. Anglo American helped them with their dream by a multi-million Rand investment that is already impacting this skills gap.
Following Anglo American’s contribution, the construction of two conjoined laboratory and classroom facilities for life sciences, physics and chemistry began in 2015 and the science centre was opened in late 2016 to the school’s 1 100 pupils. Its effect was almost immediate: 30% more Grade 9 girls chose the sciences as matric subjects.
Parktown High School for Girls is a government high school in Johannesburg that serves a diverse grouping of girls across class, race, and culture, and happens to be one of Gauteng’s province top-performing schools. It boasts a consistent 100% matric pass rate and achieved a 97% Bachelor Degree entrance rate in the 2017 matric results. The school has been acknowledged by the University of the Witwatersrand as its top feeder school.
Tracy Megom answers a few questions, about herself and how to inspire young girls.
Please tell us a bit about yourself, your career and how you landed in the position that you are in now?
I never intended going into teaching; I was going to do Engineering when I finished matric but, being a female in 1990, I could not get a bursary to do Engineering and I needed a bursary to go to University. I managed to get a bursary from the Education Department and therefore had to teach for four years to pay back the bursary. I found I loved teaching and hence I am still in the profession today. I do believe that fate played some role in ensuring that I am where I am today in terms of my career.
Why are you passionate about STEM for girls?
I do believe that girls think differently and have different ideas and contributions than boys and therefore should play a vital and complimentary role in the STEM careers which rely on innovative and creative thinking to some degree. Girls have a lot to offer and there is definitely a shortage of girls in these careers. As mentioned previously, I was going to do Engineering myself but was unable to follow this path because I was a girl and I am therefore passionate about ensuring that our girls have these opportunities.
How do you inspire the girls at your school to be interested in STEM?
We have excellent Science and Mathematics teachers at our school who can go beyond just teaching the curriculum and are passionate about their subjects. The girls are exposed to so much more thus peaking their interest in the many different fields of STEM careers. We understand how many doors Maths and Science can open and we do push and encourage girls to take these subjects. Having this new, state of the art Science Centre does, of course, not hurt and the girls are able to do experiments and many other interesting things that you could not do in an ordinary classroom.
How can we as parents inspire our daughters to become interested in STEM?
As parents we need to acknowledge that girls have so much to offer in STEM and we need to encourage them to take up these subjects and go into these careers. It is traditionally a male dominated field of study and we must not be ‘scared’ to encourage the girls to compete with the boys/men to take up their rightful place in these careers. The world is changing/has changed and we must acknowledge the role of girls/women in these fields and celebrate their achievements. The door is open; we need to push them through.
How do we inspire primary school girls to become excited about STEM, and direct their learning in this direction?
Science and Technology impacts virtually everything we do in life and young children can be inspired / interested by getting them a Science kit or microscope or telling them or explaining to them how things work and relating these everyday occurrences to Science, whether it be mixing normal ingredients together and discussing the chemical reactions at a very basic level, or explaining how electricity works. STEM can be so interesting and it is easy to relate it to things from a very basic to a more advanced level. There is something for all age groups and this should keep them interested.
Do you have an inspirational story about a girl that are passionate about STEM at your school?
Our current learners did very well in the ESKOM Regional Science EXPO in 2017. Thirty Grade 9 and four Grade 10 learners from Parktown High School for Girls were selected to exhibit their projects. Seven bronze, ten silver, eleven gold and two gold-plus medals were awarded to our learners. Skyla Bennie was the category winner in the Renewable Energy section and Safiyyah Nakhuda and Christine Bau were given special awards for achieving an average result of 92% from the judges. Nine learners were selected to go through to the National Science Fair and of the nine learners, five were selected to represent South Africa at the International Science Fair.
Our Head Girl from 2009, Prianka Padayachee, is a professional mining engineer in training at Anglo American Coal South Africa. In 2014, she graduated from Wits with BSc in Mining Engineering and was the first female chairperson of the Wits Mining School Council. In 2016, she started studying towards an Explosives Engineering qualification and currently heads up the drill and blast section at Anglo American Coal South Africa’s Zibulo Colliery.
Prianka says “The world’s challenges and opportunities can’t be tackled from a male view alone, and women bring with them a necessary advantage. Creating gender diversity helps companies evolve. If we fail to include more women in the science and technology sectors, we may miss out on untapped potential and perhaps never discover the next Marie Curie, who against the toughest odds, became the only person ever to receive a Nobel prize in two different sciences.”
Lumka Msibi, another old girl who matriculated in 2010, is an award winning Rocket Scientist. She is a qualified Aeronautical Engineer with design experience in the defense industry including technical leadership roles in systems engineering and project management. Lumka has traveled to 6 of the 7 continents of the world representing South Africa in the past 3 years. Her travels have taken her as far South as the frozen plains of Antarctica, as far East as China and Australia and as far north as Canada and the United Kingdom. In October 2014 Lumka won first prize among in a global competition hosted by the International Astronautical Conference in Toronto, Canada. Through her travels, Lumka has given talks across the world ranging from technical conference presentations, leadership, motivational talks, STEM outreach and Women in Technology.