Empowering South African Youth Through Education

by SPARK/The Umkhumbane Schools Project
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education
Empowering South African Youth Through Education

They were bright. They were curious and attentive. Some described themselves as “very shy.” Others said they were “very confident.”   All were part of a special group of twenty Umkhumbane Schools Project (“USP”) girls who attended a Girls of Tomorrow/Girls In Science workshop at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Science and Technology Education Centre (“STEC”) during our recent school holidays, as part of an ongoing partnership among the USP, STEC, and Peace Corps South Africa. 

For three days in April, this group of Grade 9 girls -- all of whom attend schools where science labs are rooms with tables and chairs but no equipment, nor running water, nor, often, electricity -- watched exciting science shows, learned how to do scientific demonstrations that they could then present to an audience of their classmates and teachers, and talked about the many challenges facing girls in South Africa in their pursuit of a dream of higher education. A tour of the STEC exhibits revealed the wonder of fossils and rocks, microscopes, and robotics. A “real” Periodic Table displayed samples of the elements in glass cases. And a wave tank modeled the physics of devastating tsunamis.

According to the 2013 UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report, educating girls improves child nutrition, decreases the frequency of deaths in childbirth, closes gender income gaps, and yields significant delays in the timing of first pregnancies. 60% fewer girls in Sub-Saharan Africa would become pregnant under the age of 17 if they completed secondary school. Even in a country such as South Africa, where a progressive Constitution upholds the ideal of gender equality, the combined forces of poverty, deeply entrenched patriarchy, the legacies of apartheid, and the effects of the HIV and TB epidemics create daunting and persistent obstacles to education for girls.

One of the most significant features of the Girls of Tomorrow/Girls in Science workshop was a panel of role-model mentors comprised of young women who are currently pursuing degrees or careers in STEM-related fields.   Through their interaction with these inspiring young women, our girls found a comfortable space to ask questions about the challenges they face. Many of them cited these discussions as their favorite part of the workshop, saying that they especially loved when the young women “told their stories” or “told about their lives and how they came from where they were and got to be scientists.” One of the role-model panelists noted this interaction with our young girls to be a “very moving experience” for her, as well, as it gave her an opportunity to inspire a group of young people while reflecting on just how far she has traveled in her own journey toward a brighter future.

Thanks to the generosity of our GlobalGiving donors, The Umkhumbane Schools Project can continue providing this kind of programming, to inspire and empower the young people of South Africa’s Cato Manor township area. For three days in April, it was the girls’ turn to dream. One day in the future, it will be their turn to lead.

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Thabsile
Thabsile

Thabsile first told me almost two years ago that she dreamed of attending the University of Cape Town.  This would be a big dream for any South African young person, but for a township learner like Thabsile it was like reaching for the sky.  Nkanyiso, another of our learners from the Class of 2016, discovered his big dream while attending Engineering Winter School with The Umkhumbane Schools Project in 2015.  Winter School opened a new world of possibility in Nkanyiso's mind, and he set his sights on becoming a civil engineer. 

January can be a cruel month for young people dreaming of attending university in South Africa, particularly for learners like Thabsile, Nkanyiso, and others coming from township schools like those where The Umkhumbane Schools Project works.  National final exam results come out in the first days of the New Year, and are pubilshed in newspapers across the country.  For the small number of township learners who will have applied for university admission, far-reaching decisions will be made on the basis of these results, and there will be little time to respond before registration dates have passed.  Statistically, even for these learners who have been high achievers within the walls of their individual schools, the likely admissions decision will be a rejection.  Put in simple terms, only a handful of rural and township learners get the opportunity to enter the halls of South African universities.  

The Umkhumbane Schools Project is working to increase the odds that learners from the Cato Manor township will gain access to higher education.  From our math and science programming, to our academic and career guidance initiatives, to our scholarship advising efforts, to our determined efforts to quickly find alternatives for learners receiving rejection notices in early January  --  in the end one of our most important goals is to connect our learners with opportunities to continue studying, with the goal of moving more and more of them into higher-end employment, thereby bringing them a chance to escape the weight of poverty and realize their full potential.  

Imagine our elation when January brought good news to Thabsile and Nkanyiso, our hard-working dreamers!  Thabsile learned last week that she has been accepted to study Civil Engineering at the University of Cape Town, and Nkanyiso has this week received an offer of admission for Civil Engineering at the University of Witwatersrand, another of South Africa's premier universities.  No words can adequately capture the joy, relief, and optimism  --  mixed with just a bit of trepidation  --  these two young people are feeling right now.  We share in their joy, and are so proud of their hard work and determination.  

Over the last two years, both Thabsile and Nkanyiso have been bright stars in a variety of The Umkhumbane Schools Project's programs.  Thabsile was among the top performers in our Grade 10 Saturday Maths classes in 2014, and was in our Eskom Expo for Young Scientists program that same year, earning a Bronze Medal at the regional competition.  After earning a Silver Medal as one of our learners at the regional competition in 2015,  Nkanyiso was chosen to go on to the International Science Fair that year.   As they both moved into their last year of high school in 2016, our team of mentors was able to provide these two and others with college guidance, assistance with the opaque and complicated admissions process, and help with applications to potential scholarship providers and South Africa's higher education loan program.  We still await news on scholarships, while the loan program funding is likely to come through sometime this coming week.  In addition to helping to support all of this work, your Global Giving donations have enabled The Umkhumbane Schools Project to pay application and registration fees for several learners, with several more of these payments still upcoming.  

As we send Thabsile and Nkanyiso off to pursue their dreams in Cape Town and Johannesburg, we are so grateful to all of our Global Giving donors for making our work possible.  Together, we are offering glimpses of a wider horizons. Together, we are opening doors.  And together, we are helping to make dreams come true.

On behalf of Thabsile, Nkanyiso, and all of us here at The Umkhumbane Schools Project, thank you!

Nkanyiso
Nkanyiso
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As of our last report, 16 of our Umkhumbane Schools Project scholars were working long days and into the night in preparation for the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists & Engineers regional competition in August.   I am thrilled to report that all 16 of our entrants received recognition, earning one Gold medal (and Best-in-Category), five Silver medals, eight Bronze medals, and two Highly Commended certificates among the whole group  And even more exciting was the news we received just one week later: six of our learners had been selected to compete in the International Science Fair (ISF) on October 4-8, in Boksburg.

With only a few weeks to get ready for the international competition, there was lots of work to be done.  For Avumile, this meant interviewing additional shack dwellers and a municipality official about the link between illegal electricity and fires in informal settlements.  For Sanelisiwe, who was investigating the impact of menstruation on school attendance in the Umkhumbane schools, this meant reading a stack of published articles on this issue, not an easy undertaking for a learner whose first language is not English.  For Bongumusa, this meant another dive into the surf to collect water samples at three of Durban's beaches, with his best friend Sphamandla (also an ISF participant!) assisting.  For all six of our young scientists and engineers, these were exciting, demanding times.

During the last ten days leading up to the ISF, we met as a group at Wiggins Secondary School after hours and on weekends.   Working well past dark on several nights, we huddled in a classroom upstairs at the school, bracing against the wind coming in through broken windows and warming ouselves with cups of tea from a worn, reliable kettle.  With a small, dedicated team of volunteers who brought in laptops and a portable internet connection, our learners worked tirelessly to revise their reports, design their posters, and practice speaking to judges.  We were a team, in the very best sense of the word, working hard to make sure that this small band of learners from the Cato Manor township schools could hold their own in the international competition. Just before dawn on October 4, we delivered our tired but excited group to the bus and watched as they drove off on the eight-hour trip to Boksburg.

To sum up their success by pointing to the five medals that our proud, prepared, and determined group earned at the ISF would miss a large part of the point I would like to make to all of you, our wonderful GlobalGiving donors.  Yes, our learners returned from Boksburg with a total of five medals  --  one Silver and four Bronze  --  but the impact of this experience on their lives goes far beyond these awards.  Thanks to your generosity, each of these learners was able to design a project and receive the mentoring they needed to see it through to completion.  They were able to purchase supplies, gain access to laptops and the internet, be transported to research sites, have meals during mentoring sessions, and receive guidance and encouragement from supportive volunteers.   Each was, in the end, able to compete against young people from the best and richest schools in the region, and to go well beyond merely holding their own.  Through all of this, they have gained immeasurably in self-confidence, knowledge, and skills, and in all the intangibles that arise when dreams become real.   

Soon we will have our reunion and wrap-up party with everyone in attendance.  The whole group of 16, along with their volunteer mentors, will gather once again to reminisce and celebrate our Expo success.  It will be yet another reminder of why this work is so worthwhile and important.  It will be another reason to thank you, our GlobalGiving team!

Sincerely,

Martha Bishai

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Three Young Scientists
Three Young Scientists

So much has been happening at The Umkhumbane Schools Project since our last report.  Our mathematics classes have continued to make progress.   The number of players in our interschool chess league has expanded, with several entering the EThekwini Youth Trials in July.  And we have had memorable visits from students and alumni of the African Leadership Academy and the School for International Training. 

But by far the most significant focus of our energy at the moment is on mentoring this year's group for participation in the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists and Engineers, South Africa's premier science competition for high-school students.  Innocent, Yola, Avumile (pictured above) and Asiphe (shown below) are four of the 18 young people working long days in preparation for this year's Expo, which is just three weeks away on August 19.  Before the arrival of The Umkhumbane Schools Project, no student from the Cato Manor schools had ever competed in the Eskom Expo.  Each year since 2013, however, a hard-working and inspiring group has entered the annual competition through our Expo mentoring program, to date winning a total of 14 medals and 13 invitations to advance to the Interntational Science Fair in Johannesburg.  As I write this report, the excitement is building with this year's Expo so close at hand.

Avumile (far right, above) a 10th-Grade student at Wiggins Secondary, has been concerned about fires that destroy shack-dwellings in his community.  His hypothesis is that the incidence of shack fires is related to the use of makeshift electricity connections, a common practice in informal settlements.  Avumile has been walking around the community in Cato Manor, collecting interview data from shack-dwellers and documenting both the prevalence of makeshift grid connections and recent incidents of fire. 

Yola, also a Grade 10 learner at Wiggins Secondary, is in the middle of the trio pictured above.  Yola was inspired by his experience in our Saturday maths classes to conduct an experiment on whether the use of calculators can inhibit the development of mathematics skills.  He has been going next door to Wiggins Primary School to do his experiment on two groups of Grade 7 learners, with one group using calculators and the other not.  

Innocent (on the left, above), an 8th-Grade student at Bonela Secondary School, is investigating whether the exterior paint colors chosen by people in his community can affect the inside temperature of their homes.  Innocent's research has included long days of walking door-to-door to interview people on their experience with using color to minimize heat in the hot Durban summers and to combat the chill which sets in during our winters.  Next, Innocent will be constructing and painting some models of dwellings and measuring the interior temperature of each.

Asiphe, a Grade 11 learner at Bonela, is interested in the cultural practices in her community that involve the use of snake bile.  She is pictured below with a local sangoma (practitioner of traditional medicine), from whom we purchased a vial of green mamba snake bile to be used in pH-testing for part of her investigation.  Through this testing and a series of in-depth interviews with sangomas and other community members, Asiphe is applying scientific research skills in order to better understand common local practices.

Being part of our Expo group is truly a life-changing experience for our learners.  This program gives them a chance to take an original idea and develop it into a research or design-and-build project, with close one-on-one mentoring by our staff and a dedicated team of volunteers.  Coming from schools where science rooms are without running water and have no materials or equipment, our Expo mentoring project ignites not only their intellectual curiosity but also their belief in themselves.  

Your GlobalGiving contributions make all of this possible.  On behalf of Yola, Innocent, Asiphe, Avumile, and all of this year's Expo scholars, our sincerest thanks.  

Stay tuned for an update after the Expo!

Asiphe and the Sangoma
Asiphe and the Sangoma
Avumile Interviewing
Avumile Interviewing
Innocent Investigating
Innocent Investigating
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Ours are not your ordinary math classes!  These are some of the eager Grade 10 math learners doing something we love to do at SPARK/The Umkhumbane Schools Project --  play active, mind-engaging math games outdoors!   We have 170 hard-working students attending Grade 10 Saturday math, as we continue to provide education and mentoring that will lift the Cato Manor township learners towards success in school and a bighter future beyond.   We bring learners together from across all five of our schools to work with teachers and volunteer math mentors from our local University in an atmosphere that is fun, challenging, and affirming.  It would be difficult to overstate our schools' need for this kind of support.  Last year's pass rate in mathematics for Grade 10 learners in our schools who did not attend the SPARK/Umkhumbane programme was only 2% (with a score of 30% considered a "Pass"), while learners in our programme managed to attain a 25% pass rate.  While we are pleased to see that we are making a difference, we continue to set our sights higher, and are aiming to lift each and every one of our 170 Grade 10 learners to success in math this year.  

Where will this take these young people, and why does it matter?  Simply put, success in school, and in math in particular, will change these young people's lives.  The alternative of continued failure in math among township learners in South African communities like Umkhumbane/Cato Manor keeps the door to higher education shut for them.  Not only will their dreams of future work in health care, engineering, accounting, teaching, or IT remain an impossibility, but the persistent inequality and deep poverty that shape South Africa today, even 22 years after the end of apartheid, will remain unchanged.  

We are helping open these doors not only through our maths programme, but also with our Tertiary Access program, through which our older learners  -- Grades 11 and 12  --  are given guidance in gaining access to university programmes after high school.  Below is a photo of three of our successful 2016 applicants who are now pursuing Bachelor's Degrees in their first semester at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).  

On the mentoring front, we have so much news to share!  In the last two months we have launched a new academic and life-skills mentoring class in partnership with the Hawu! Science Mentoring initiative at UKZN.  Through this pilot project, a group of 30 of our Grade 11 learners will meet with a group of mentors twice a month as a supplement to their Saturday math classes, to learn about higher education options, gain career guidance, and develop friendships with university students and young professionals who are wonderful role models to our learners.   Our kick-off mentoring session was just two weeks ago, and we are excited to see this important initiative continue.  

Finally, among the many activities that could be highlighted in this report, our new Interschool Chess League deserves special mention.  This is an aspect of our mentoring efforts that reaches learners who may not be enrolled in math or science, but who are eager for an opportunity to hone valuable life-skills and develop self-confidence through regular, friendly competition with other schools.   Though an essential feature of learning in well-resourced schools, this kind of opportunity is virtually absent in township and rural schools. The photo below is from our first match, between Wiggins and Chesterville Secondary Schools.  Though Chesterville pulled ahead early in the afternoon, Wiggins came through with a narrow victory by the end of the day!  The League will be having matches each week, and will culminate in an end-of-year tournament in September.

We are so excited to see the progress our learners are making this year, all thanks to the generosity of our donors.  Many heartfelt thanks for your support of our GlobalGiving campaign! 

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SPARK/The Umkhumbane Schools Project

Location: Durban - South Africa
Website:
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Twitter: @umkhumbane
Project Leader:
Martha Bishai
Durban, South Africa
$62,254 raised of $75,000 goal
 
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