COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT OFFICE CELEBRATES WOMEN IN STEM, WITH THE UMKHUMBANE SCHOOLS PROJECT

The Office for Community Engagement under the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Engagement (DVC: RIE) at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) recently hosted a Women’s Month Event in partnership with their social partner, Umkhumbane Schools Project (USP). The event sought to highlight the accomplishments of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), whilst drawing attention to the opportunities that exist for young women planning to forge careers in these fields.

The event targeted a group of 60 high school learners who are a part of the DUT-USP Architecture and Engineering Programme, which seeks to develop the design and technical skills of high school learners interested in STEM careers and expose them to the multitude of careers that exist in these fields. The learners are Grade 10 and 11 Engineering Graphics and Design students from Bonela Secondary, Umkhumbane Secondary and Wiggins Secondary located, which are all located in the Cato Manor area.

The event featured prominent female STEM professionals, all of whom are an integral part of the DUT community. The three guest speakers were, Ms Zabathwa Mzamane, a Civil Engineering Technologist at the eThekwini Municipality’s Department of Water and Sanitation and a DUT Civil Engineering alumnus; Ms Hlengekile Lubanyana, a Lecturer at DUT’s Chemistry Department; and Dr Kwanele Kunene a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Material Science and Technology and a DUT Chemistry alumnus.

The esteemed guest speakers all shared their riveting stories, from humble rural beginnings to being the accomplished professionals that they are today. They encouraged the learners to work hard, be disciplined and not let their circumstances determine their fate. Ms Mzamane encouraged the young female learners, to never allow “imposter syndrome” to get the best of them – and that they were just as capable and worthy of occupying spaces as their male counterparts. Ms Mzamane is one of a handful of female Engineering Technologists at the eThekwini Municipality and is a proud advocate for advancing access to opportunities for young black females in STEM careers.

Similarly, Ms Lunbanyana encouraged the learners to always persevere and reminded them that it is never too late to start working towards their goals and aspirations. Lubanyana shared the inspiring story of how choosing the wrong degree in her first year, eventually led to her current passion, Chemistry. She also highlighted the importance of maintaining discipline and punctuality, throughout your career and life. The final speaker, Dr Kunene, provided a great source of motivation to all learners. She shared a short presentation of her life story, titled “From Village Girl to Doctor: A journey of struggles, blessing, and determination”, in which she detailed her journey from her humble upbringing in Dannhauser, KwaZulu-Natal until her most recent appointment as a researcher in Switzerland. Having these accomplished female professionals, was truly a remarkable treat for not only the learners but all those in attendance.

The event culminated in a practical session facilitated by the DUT SAICE Chapter. In line with the STEM theme, their game was centred on water equilibrium and encouraged the learners to create a functioning water system, modelling the path of water from its source until the point where it reaches people’s homes. The game was an exciting opportunity for learners to hone their design and problem-solving skills, whilst being exposed to a real engineering challenge. After being given some time to put their models together, the models were tested for functionality, and the winning group was awarded prizes by the DUT Community Engagement Office.

Speaking on the importance of encouraging young women to venture into STEM careers and exposing them to the appropriate professionals to add to their motivation, Ms Phumzile Xulu of the DVC RIE: Community Engagement Office at DUT stated there has been a steady growth in the number of women taking up careers in STEM over the past few years since a lot of the structural barriers to them studying STEM-related qualifications has fallen away. A report by UNESCO states that women account for only 32% of South Africa’s STEM graduates.

“It is important that we increase the number of role models for young girls from underrepresented or formerly marginalised communities and look at ways we can address unconscious biases and stereotyping that favour man in STEM careers”, she said.

Photo: Learners and the guest speakers at the Women’s Month Event.

Tracy Khuzwayo

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