Using STEM to reach for the stars

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It is abundantly clear that the world around us is changing at a rapid pace.

Technology is advancing exponentially and the tools that we use, namely computers, cellphones, cars, electricity, etc. are evolving and new models and designs are being released quicker than ever before.

As a parent, I want my daughters to play a meaningful role in the world around them. In order to achieve this, I need to ensure that they have all the tools they need to thrive in the 21st century. What are these tools? They need to be mathematically and scientifically literate and they need to be able to solve problems in creative ways. I run an NGO, Living Maths and we promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (known as STEM subjects) support to about 4500 students a week in Cape Town and around the world over the internet. Yes, I am aware that people say that maths is not their favourite subject. My response? If you like music then you are a hypocrite! Why would I state something like this? Simply put, just because you don’t enjoy hiphop music or Yodelling does not mean that you stop liking music altogether. In the same way, just because you don’t like doing sums, you cannot say you don’t like maths – you can only say that you don’t like that part of maths. There are many other parts and this is what we enjoy revealing to students. I will admit, that we need to think outside of the box to win people over and one of those ideas was our recent Living Maths Space Tour.

I had a dream to bring an astronaut to South Africa, and take them to a few cities for public talks and school visits. I wanted to show the glamourous side of STEM by showing the possibilities!
At the start of November, I hosted former NASA Astronaut, Dr Don Thomas, a veteran of four shuttle missions and an extraordinary speaker. I have worked with Don for about eight years and he is unbelievable with kids and he has a knack for inspiring young people. We spent a few days in Cape Town then we moved up to Johannesburg and then finally ended our space tour in Durban. During this time we received incredible coverage on all the major radio stations, TV shows, newspapers and social media. We hosted seven Public talks in two weeks, which were all full and we had about 10 School visits in total. I estimate that we reached over two million people if you take into account the Media and school visits! So what was it that Don was telling the kids?

Don only tells this story to a handful of people. His father left the family home when he was nine. His mother single-handedly raised four children and they often went without meals but most of the time they had to rely on food stamps. He had decided at a young age that he wanted to become an astronaut after watching the first US astronaut orbit around Earth. He was not the strongest academic around but was determined. After being turned down four times, building extra skills sets to improve his chances and investing many hours into training, he was finally contacted by NASA and offered the job. He only flew his first mission at 39 years old. He made it abundantly clear that despite orbiting the Earth almost 700 times, meeting his great hero, Neil Armstrong and going on four Shuttle missions to Space, the journey was difficult but quitting was not an option. Many students bemoan the fact that they find the STEM subjects tough. They can be, however, if everything we did was easy and there were no challenges, we would never celebrate the victories. Climbing out of your comfort zone allows you to grow as a person!

I received many emails and tributes to thank us for bringing Don to the country. Students were blown away by his story but more importantly, by how he made time for every person who wanted a photo or autograph. He was the epitome of the perfect role model! One letter that I received a few days after one of his talks in Cape Town came from a parent of an eight year old. She wrote:

Hi, Thank you for arranging the visit and talks by Dr Don Thomas. He has clearly inspired many, many children during his time here. We were at the one at Bergvliet high and both my daughters (Ellen and Iris) currently want to become astronauts. Iris, who is eight, came home and wrote her plan for getting into space. She has also done her homework every day since then which is completely out of character for her. I am hoping that this lasts for a little while at least.

And this parent attached Iris’s plan:

We have been inundated with requests for schools visits and different cities asking why they were skipped. So the Living Maths Space Tour of 2018 is already in the planning phase. So the next time you think about Maths and science — don’t think of them as obstacles — think of them as opportunities and to quote Dr Suess, ‘Oh the places you’ll go!’

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