Africa’s first private satellite will be launched in 2016. But scientists and engineers will not be behind this bold move – it is being powered by a group of South African high school girls, writes TAMMY PETERSEN.
Pupils from across Cape Town on Youth Day attended the launch of the ambitious project, run by the Meta Economic Development Organisation (Medo).
A shortage of technical skills required for building businesses motivated the company to launch a science, technology, engineering and maths focused programme, explained Medo CEO Judi Sandrock.
“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,” she said.
She referred to the National Advisory Council on Innovation in April, confirming that in the 2014 matric results, only 7.6% of pupils passed maths with more than 60%, while 5.5% managed the same in physical science.
‘Technically passionate households’
The programme is crucial in reversing the legacy of apartheid which excluded maths and science from the curriculum of non-white children, the company said in a statement.
Today’s children are “not brought up in technically passionate households” and the number of technical degree applicants is decreasing year-on-year”.
The Medo programme has been designed to inspire young women to consider science, technology, engineering, and maths as a career.
These careers represent eight of the top 10 occupations in demand in the country, Sandrock pointed out.
At the launch, the girls were introduced to the programme through an interactive workshop.
Focused on creating their own jiggy bot – an electrical device which uses different mechanisms to light up a bulb, vibrate, and move – the goggle-wearing teenagers then assembled and soldered their creations with meticulous precision.
‘Space trek’ camps
This was part of the first stage of the project which introduces the women to electronics and the basics of practical science.
“Space trek” week-long camps will take place during the holiday following the end of the third term, where participants will design their satellite payload experiments and test them using high altitude weather balloons.
In December, extended school holiday internships to finalise payload designs will take place, and the satellite will be built for launch.
Absorbed in assembling her jiggy bot, Siddiqah Latief told News24 she never thought science could be so exciting.
‘I always thought it was for nerdy boys’
“It’s amazing to see how all these bits come together to create something so technical and amazing,” the Pelican Park High School pupil enthused.
“It has never been my favourite subject, but I am starting to love science. I always thought it was for nerdy boys. Now I am thinking of making this my career.”
Nina-Rose Clarke of Pinelands High School agreed.
“I never thought building things could be this interesting. I am loving this experience. It’s so exciting to be exposed to more than just drawing and studying ideas. Constructing stuff is so much better.”
The satellite is scheduled to be launched in the first quarter of 2016.
Meet the ambassador to the future
Tilly Lockey, 14, lost her hands as a toddler, but sees it as a massive opportunity to embrace technology. She chatted with ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK about the human of tomorrow.
It is a description that defines 14-year-old Tilly Lockey: She lost her hands at the age of 15 months, and now uses bionic hands to show the world how to overcome disability.
That could easily read as an advertisement for a prosthetics company, but Tilly refuses to be defined by marketing messages. She has not only embraced what is supposed to be a disability, but wants to become nothing less than an ambassador to the future.
That is in effect what she is achieving by pushing the boundaries of what is possible with artificial hands. It means that, eventually, she will have more capabilities built into her body than most able-bodied humans can imagine. She collaborates closely with Open Bionics, a start-up that is using 3D printing to create low-cost prosthetics with high-tech capabilities.
“I have very high hopes for the future,” she said during a chat on the sidelines of the SingularityU Summit at Kyalami north of Johannesburg. From Newcastle-on-Tyne in the United Kingdom, she was at the Summit as a guest speaker, chaperoned by her father Adam and sister Tia.
“When I started working with Open Bionics, I wanted it to include lighting, music, Bluetooth, a projector in my palm, all over-optimistic things. But then I feel that is not too far away, and then a disability would turn into and enhancement of normal human hands. I’m really excited about it.
“I know there’s a couple of things they are working on right now, like trying to get the built-in battery thinner, because it’s hard to get overcoats and jackets over it, so they are trying to get the hands slimmer. They’re working on haptic feedback, to give a sense of touch of vibration, which tells me of I have a good grip on something. It could be coming soon. These hands I’m using now were made in the past five years. In another five years, I think we’ll have all of it.”
The hands in question are called Hero Arms, which its creators, Open Bionics, say is “the world’s first clinically approved 3D-printed bionic arm, with multi-grip functionality and empowering aesthetics”.
Click here to read more about the development of Open Bionics’s Hero Arms.
How Tilly Lockey became a Hero
Part 2 of ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK’s interview with Tilly Lockey explores her amazing career.
This is the second part of this series of articles. To start from the beginning, click here.
Tilly Lockey was diagnosed with Meningococcal Septicaemia Strain B when she was 15 months old.
Her mother spotted the tell-tale signs one day in 2007: a fast-spreading skin rash that looks like pinpricks, along with symptoms like lethargy and bruising. She was rushed to hospital, but the bacterial poisoning spread so aggressively, doctors gave Tilley no chance of survival. They had to make a quick decision to amputate her hands to save her life.
Twelve years later, her future truly came into focus: “I was surprised with really cool Alita: Battle Angel bionic Hero Arms and went on the blue carpet at the world premiere of the movie with Rosa Salazar and director James Cameron.”
That pivotal moment in her life would not have been possible without the intensive efforts of her mother, Sara, to raise funds to buy something better than the metal prosthetics issued by the National Health Service in the UK. She increased Tilley’s profile with a campaign to “Give Tilley a Hand”, and today works as a fundraiser and events organiser for the Meningitis Now support group. Her involvement in an event meant she was unable to join Tilley on her trip to South Africa last week, when she spoke at the SingularityU Summit. After coming off stage, Tilley told us that Sara was her biggest inspiration in her life, and the closest to a role model.
“I’m usually a speaker at her events. I tell everyone my story and what I’m doing now and give these kids inspiration, because they often feel they can’t do anything because of what Meningitis did to them.
“I am home schooled now, which is pretty cool, because I’m able to have a career and get educated at the same time. I feel I can do a lot of things that friends can’t do. I can take a whole class on an aeroplane. I have a great time traveling and meeting so many inspiring people who are making a difference in the world.”
The form of Mengingitis that attacked her leaves hidden scars and issues that only become apparent years later. She is almost absurdly cheerful about the challenges that have faced her.
“I personally figured out that my left leg had stopped growing. I’m still finding out things it has caused, but you survive. At least I’m here and I’m alive.”
It does help that she’s comfortable in the spotlight, happy to give interviews, and eager to show what she can do with her bionic hands.
“I want to go into public speaking a lot more, and it could be an option as career. I want it to continue because it’s a lot of fun, and I feel I’ve got a story to share. If I can inspire people to change the world, I will. “
Her travels this year will still take her to Barcelona, Jakarta and New York. In the Big Apple, she will accept a humanitarian award, and intends “to give a funky speech”.
In Jakarta, Indonesia, she will take part in a fashion catwalk and do a makeup tutorial live. She learned to do makeup with one of her bionic hands when she fractured her right elbow in a fall at school
“I got makeup for Christmas and wanted to play with it, and got the idea of doing it with an open hand. It took a lot of perseverance and patience, but after studying how to do it, I was able to recreate a full makeup routine using one hand. It wasn’t a great situation at the time, but now I’m happy it happened because it got me into doing what I do now.”
What she is doing with makeup is remarkable in its own right. She gives tutorials on YouTube, where she says she is “kinda new”, as she has “only around 16,000 followers”. That may well soon expand into cooking videos.
In other words, everything is an opportunity: “I could be sad, just sit on my bed and cry, or I can live my life and realise what I’ve got: these amazing bionic Hero Arms.
“All I want to do is help give people confidence in themselves, accept who they are, accept their scars and everything about them. That they don’t have to impress everybody and just be themselves.”
Read more in the third article of the series about how family remains at the centre of Tilly’s life.