Astro Molo Mhlaba Project Wins Women & Girls Astronomy Prize

Astro Molo Mhalaba
The Astro Molo Mhalaba Project focus on black girls in underserved areas.

A month ago, the Astro Molo Mhlaba Project, a Khayelitsha-based (Cape Town) project that focuses on the problems of inclusivity and diversity in South African science by engaging the most underrepresented group – black girls from underserved communities – at various stages of their education, was announced the winner of the  IAU100’s Women & Girls in Astronomy Prize.

The project launched through a EUR9,000 grant from the Office of Astronomy for Development, an office of the International Astronomical Union, in December 2018, has inspired and supported black girls in Khayelitsha to pursue a career in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) through its many innovative, creative, accessible, fun, inclusive and interactive astronomy and sustainable public outreach events, efforts in line with the aims of  IAU100’s Women and Girls in Astronomy initiative, and for which it won the prize.

Speaking to Space In Africa, the project coordinator, Dr Margherita Molaro, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, described the event organised in  occasion of the Women & Girls in Astronomy Day “as only the start of the Astro Molo Mhlaba project, which extends well beyond the Molo Mhlaba school to reach – on a weekly basis – girls from various primary and high schools in Khayelitsha and Philippi.”

According to her, the goal is to use the fascinating world of astronomy, which easily captures the imagination of students (and adults) of all ages, as a tool to inspire and encourage black girls from underserved communities to pursue careers in STEM.

“Thanks to many South African projects, for example, the Square Kilometre Array project, astronomy is also a high-profile STEM sector in the country. We know that providing these girls with the inspiration they deserve is only half of the job; we are committed to providing them with the necessary resources and support to turn their new-found aspirations into realistic career prospects, through mentorship and bursary programmes. So far, it’s been an incredible experience, we have learnt a lot during this first year and are already at work to do even better in 2020!”

Speaking on the challenges of the project, she noted the lack of awareness as a hurdle to the project.
“During the foundation year, we invested much effort into establishing relationships with schools and increasing awareness of the programme in the community, but winning this prize will help. We hope that as the programme is more established and well known, we will be able to reach the young women in the community, and support them as they fulfil their true potential.”

Looking at what the project may gain from winning the prize, Dr Molaro described the victory as very exciting and rewarding.
“The opportunity that came with it to attend the IAU Symposium on Astronomy for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Tokyo on the 12-16 of November, is thrilling. We are so excited to be able to share the vision of Molo Mhlaba and its astronomy programme with the international astronomical community; we believe we can bring a unique perspective, experience, and expertise to the table.”

At the moment, the group, in celebration of the IAU100 Astronomy Day in Schools, is organising an event, which will include an astronomy show by the primary school girls participating in the Astro Club, speeches by local astronomers, and the opportunity for parents and students of all ages to mingle with astronomers and ask about astronomy in South Africa and careers in STEM.

Inclusiveness of the female gender is foremost to achieving Africa’s Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs), and the Astro Molo Mhlaba Project, amongst others, is leading the fore through its astronomy and STEM activities for black girls in underserved areas.