College of Science, Engineering & Technology

Deriving personal development from research teamwork

There is international concern about the underrepresentation of women in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. A community outreach programme, GirlPower, was initiated by the University of South Africa with the aim of increasing the cohort of girls who are ready and prepared to undertake higher education studies in science, engineering, and technology (SET).

Unisa’s GirlPower programme aims to develop a generation of girls who are confident, competent, and can realise their potential.

In terms of its community engagement and outreach policy, the university “subscribes to an ethos of service to and relevance in the community” and “recognises that its resources, research, and training and learning capacities should be used to…contribute to the growth of South Africa and the African continent and…help address issues relating to the great socioeconomic divide, substantial inequalities,…and rampant poverty.” The GirlPower community outreach programme of the university’s College of Science, Engineering, and Technology—with the goal of developing a generation of girls who are confident, competent, and can realise their potential in SET fields—is relevant not only institutionally but also nationally and internationally.

In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation. A project on this topic was undertaken through the GirlPower programme. The scope of the project entailed the following:

  • Seven identified secondary schools in Atteridgeville, southwest of the Tshwane (Pretoria) central business district, participated, with ten girls from grades 8 to 11 from each school, totalling 70 learners.
  • Staff members of the university volunteered to work closely with the seven teams of girls selected from the participating schools and provided leadership and mentoring to build trust and confidence in them.
  • The university staff trained the learners in research skills, and the learners were presented with research questions linked to the themes of the International Year of Water Cooperation and real-life problems that they had to solve.
  • At a research summit held at the university in October 2013, the learners (girls) showcased their innovative projects and demonstrated the knowledge they had acquired. The presentations showed how the experience had impacted their learning and their lives in general. It further motivated them and built their confidence to participate and excel in the STEM fields.
  • Accomplished women in SET fields gave motivational talks and shared their experiences to serve as inspiring role models and provide encouragement to GirlPower learners.

Permission and ethical clearance was obtained from both the College Research Ethics Committee and the South African Department of Education. The intentions, procedures, and significance of the study, as well as the target group, were clearly outlined. Furthermore, informed consent was obtained from all participating girls and their parents or guardians, irrespective of the age of the girls, because, as learners, they are still under guardianship. The girls were informed that they were free to either join in or decline participation at any stage of the study; refusal to participate would not entail a penalty.

The staff members of the college who volunteered to work closely with each school were interviewed individually about their memories regarding their 2013 involvement in GirlPower. Interviews were unstructured, where the scribe asked each staff member to give an overview of their 2013 involvement as well as any observations made. The scribe undertook an analysis of the qualitative data, extracting themes and commonalities, after the data had been read a number of times.

Valuable findings

It is considered valuable to contextualise the findings by starting with a background sketch of Atteridgeville. The township is one of six previously disadvantaged residential areas of the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality. Atteridgeville is situated some 15 km by road from the university’s main campus, located at Muckleneuk, south of the Tshwane central business district. The Science Campus is located about 75 km southwest in Florida Park, Roodepoort, part of Greater Johannesburg.

Atteridgeville was established in 1939, after considerable lobbying by Myrtle Patricia Atteridge, a philanthropist, Black Sash activist, Pretoria City Councillor, and deputy mayoress of Pretoria, who endeavoured to improve living conditions of blacks who were previously living in appalling conditions in Marabastad. The first 50 families moved to Atteridgeville on 26 May 1940, eight years before the apartheid government was voted in. Between 1968 and 1978, developments were frozen in accordance with the ruling government’s policy that housing for black people should be limited to the homelands.

University staff were linked with the respective GirlPower teams in various ways. Some were picked by the GirlPower team members, while others were assigned to schools upon volunteering to take part in the programme. Teachers at the respective schools served as the link or “gateway.” The first meeting at most schools involved most of the teachers, after which contact continued with the assigned “guardian” teacher and the members of the GirlPower team. At one of the schools, the principal and one teacher remained involved throughout.

On the positive side, the “guardian” teachers made arrangements, secured the availability of the girls, obtained permission from parents, got indemnity forms signed, and ensured that the girls were released from other school activities. However, in some cases, the involvement of the teachers was disappointing, if not problematic, in that they wanted some type of reward. They continued to maintain a focus on their teaching work only and did not take the mentoring role seriously; some resigned and left the school and the new appointees simply did not display any interest.

The extent of contact with the GirlPower teams varied. Some university staff members embraced the community engagement enthusiastically and held weekly meetings with their teams at the schools concerned, even using their own transport. Others held meetings every alternative week, initially at the schools, but once transport had been arranged for the GirlPower teams from their respective schools, these meetings were held at the main campus at Muckleneuk, Pretoria. One GirlPower team had two field trips to collect water samples, both in the township and at remote sites where less water pollution is likely. These samples were compared as part of the research.

The nature of the community engagement of the university staff members with the GirlPower teams also varied. One staff member reported that there was an instant rapport and another reported that the girls “have their hearts out” (meaning, put their hearts and souls into) and gave their all. The general experience was that the girls responded well, were happy to participate, and were excit­ed to be involved with the university. One staff member initially struggled to get the girls involved in the research but experienced gradual progress. Guided research “consultation” and even personal development marked the community engagement of some university staff members.

At the start of the project, the GirlPower teams knew little to nothing about research. Without using research jargon, the girls were given a basic frame of reference at the start of the project. Some teams even stated hypotheses and projected outcomes, after having selected a topic. In some instances, the university staff member proposed or even presented a topic to the team. “Consultation” entailed discussion of the research project, feedback on it, and correction where necessary.

The research projects of the various teams reflected, to some extent, the area of expertise of the university staff member or the area of personal research. A staff member observed a number of fundamental knowledge gaps among his team members, which he addressed during the course of the research project. Developmental aspects facilitated included structured thinking, confidence building, prioritisation, and phrasing of questions aligned with the ultimate goal. The importance of acknowledging sources and referencing them was highlighted.

Several university staff members focused on the development of the presentation skills of the GirlPower teams by devoting two final sessions, prior to presenting the results to the research summit, to polish PowerPoint slides and presentation skills. One made use of marking sheets and introduced the notion of peer review among the girls. Another emphasised that the entire team must prepare to answer questions, not leaving the presenter exposed.

Several university staff members remarked how amazing the GirlPower team members were. They were bright but with varied technological proficiency. Generally, the girls exhibited remarkable skills in accessing resources. Guidance was given on the importance of knowing your destiny when consulting resources. Teamwork was impressive, with new members easily assimilated when drop-outs occurred. However, some disparities were observed; these were attributed to disadvantaged circumstances in townships not being conducive to the GirlPower intervention.

University staff members generally experienced their involvement in the programme as a fulfilling one, not just satisfying a key performance area of the university’s integrated performance management system. Some remarked how they loved working with the girls, experiencing their enthusiasm and commitment. One staff member voiced satisfaction with the planning and coordination of the events. Overall, it was an enriching experience for several participants, and it included lots of fun.

It is hoped that this community engagement programme has a lasting impact, that research skills will evolve, and that the involvement of the girls will impact their career choices. In a few cases, new team members were taken on board this year because the 2013 members who were in grade 11 were engaged in end-of-school examination preparations. However, the majority were in grade 8 in 2013, which allowed for working with the same group for several years. A longitudinal study on the impact of GirlPower is envisaged.

*By Thomas Groenewald and Corina-Maria Mateescu

IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine 10(2), 56-58, December 2016

This article first appeared in IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine and is used by permission. You can read the original here.