How does one help women of color overcome barriers to STEM careers?

Africa’s space sector is growing, but will it include marginalized communities? A common criticism of STEM fields is that they exclude women and people of color. Some organizations in Africa are trying to address these problems. We spoke with Dr. Margherita Molaro, an astrophysics postdoctoral researcher at South Africa’s University of the Western Cape. She is the astronomy program coordinator for Molo Mhlaba, an organization that seeks to reduce barriers that hinder black girls’ and young women’s access to STEM careers.

What is Molo Mhlaba’s mission and where did the idea for this mission come from?

Molo Mhlaba has a radical new approach to schooling in South Africa: it provides the country’s most vulnerable group – black girls from underserved communities – with access to quality STEM education and career orientation through local, low-fee, independent schools. The project was founded and is led by a local award-winning activist. It provides a holistic approach to tackle the complex challenges that prevent these girls from achieving their potential.

Can you provide more detail about Molo Mhlaba’s space-related activities?

Our Astro Molo Mhlaba Program is dedicated to astronomy. It reaches around 150 girls from four primary schools through the Astro Club, and around 15 young women through the Astro Academy. Astronomy naturally captures the imagination of children and adults alike, and thanks to many South African astronomy projects (e.g. the Square Kilometer Array), it is a high-profile STEM sector in the country. This makes astronomy an ideal lens through which to inspire South African girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM.

The Astro Club is a weeklyafterschool program of fun, astronomy-based activities that aim to transmit fundamental astronomy concepts to young girls while doing so in a way that creates positive associations with astronomy and problem-solving. It aims to develop girls’ confidence in approaching scientific subjects, and empower them to pursue their scientific curiosity with assurance.

The Astro Academy consists of a series of weekly astronomy lessons aimed at 11th and 12th graders from local high schools, as well as recently-matriculated young women from the community. The latter are trained to run the above-mentioned Astro Club as Astro Club Facilitators. All participants are taught and mentored by professional female astronomers, and provided with advice and support on how to pursue a STEM degree.

The Astro Molo Mhlaba program not only inspires girls and young women to be passionate about science, but provides them with additional resources that can allow them to realize their ambition to pursue concrete career paths. Towards this end, we provide all participants with free weekly math and science tutoring by professional tutors, in order to ensure they meet the academic requirements needed to apply to both university and financial aid opportunities to fund their degrees. Furthermore, ACFs, along with their teacher training, receive a bursary for their work in the Astro Club, to ensure they can have a continuous source of income while learning about astronomy and considering pursuing a STEM degree.

How can people support Astro Molo Mhlaba if they are interested in doing so?

All Astro Molo Mhlaba programs are offered free of charge to participants and we exclusively rely on donations and the work of volunteers. Donors’ support is what makes it possible for us to carry this dream forward. You can donate to our program on our GlobalGiving page.