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Working together on a global scale: ISASA and MIT show students how to succeed with STEM

| March 27, 2019 | 0 Comments


In 2017, I was invited to lunch by my daughter’s godfather, professor Zeblon Vilakazi, to come and meet professor Hazel Sive, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the US.
As the deputy vice-chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), in Johannesburg, professor Vilakazi leads Wits’ collaborations with MIT. Besides being a professor of biology at MIT, professor Sive is the faculty director of the MIT-Africa Collaborating for Impact initiative.1 As she is a former pupil of a girls’ school, Parktown High School for Girls, Professor Sive and I began discussing the underrepresentation of women at the highest level of scientific enquiry. Of course the most obvious response to this significant lag in the participation of women in science, is to try and increase the interest level of girls in science. It was on this basis that MIT and ISASA agreed to explore a collaboration.
In the first full week of January 2018, ISASA and MIT piloted a girls-in-science programme which was held at St. Mary’s School, Waverley in Johannesburg and St Cyprian’s School in Cape Town. At the Johannesburg course, eight girls’ schools enrolled their students and, in Cape Town, three ISASA member girls’ high schools sent their top mathematics and science learners. As with any pilot, many areas for improvement revealed themselves. It is to the credit of MIT that they were of the perspective that these were not insurmountable and that on balance, it had been a success. Later in 2018, I attended a follow-up meeting at MIT, where it was decided that the programme should not only be repeated but that it should be expanded from 30 girls to 60 boys and girls. As a result, this year, a highly successful MIT/ISASA Africa Summer Seminar on Natural and Artificial Intelligence was held at St John’s College, Johannesburg, in the first full week of January 2019.
Lebogang Montjane

The 2019 MIT/ISASA Africa Summer Seminar on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
The seminar was carefully curated and brought dynamic young minds from MIT’s undergraduate and postgraduate programmes to share their expertise in fields as diverse as neurobiology and computer coding. This incredible opportunity was available to all pupils entering Grade 12 in 2019 who have selected mathematics, physical science and, ideally, also advanced programme mathematics as subjects. A fortunate group of 57 pupils from many parts of South Africa, as well as from Swaziland and Namibia, were selected to attend a week-long set of workshops aimed at developing advanced mathematics and science competencies. In total, 22 ISASA member schools sent some of their best students to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity.

The course was divided into three themes: natural and artificial intelligences, as well as design and entrepreneurship. The natural intelligence models dealt with neuroscience, cognitive neuropsychology and neurotechnology. Those students studying artificial intelligence on the course, were exposed to computer science theory and Python algorithms design.2 The design and entrepreneurship component of the programme dealt with experimental design and research methodology, robotics and Arduino programming,3 engineering innovation and design, and entrepreneurship. Great emphasis was placed on problem-solving skills and the method used at MIT to develop these skills, the PSET, or problem set. PSETs are a key component of MIT classes. At the MIT/ISASA seminar, the questions for each module comprised the PSET for the seminar as a whole.

Supplementary modules
In addition to these core modules, there were supplementary modules that dealt with gender in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), applying to universities, building a professional profile and becoming an entrepreneur. To illustrate research opportunities for students at MIT, the MIT students shared what research they have participated in during their studies, at both graduate and undergraduate levels at MIT and beyond.

On one of the days, professor Vilakazi gave a lecture on the relationship between natural and artificial intelligence. To the surprise of the high school students, when establishing the interrelationship between natural and artificial intelligence, he placed humanity at the centre of any future technological developments. For him, humans will never be obsolete or outthought by machines.

To encourage broad participation and to ensure that cost would not be a barrier to enrolment, the charge for this whole- week programme was R750, inclusive of lunches and teas as well as a fieldtrip to the IBM Research Lab-Africa/Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein.4 For those who stayed in the St John’s College boarding houses, the fee was R3 000. Financial assistance was offered to seven pupils who are resident outside of Gauteng and consequently incurred additional costs.

A resounding success
This second iteration of the programme was a resounding success. The quality of students who came from MIT reflected the high demand to be an instructor on the MIT/ISASA Programme. Apparently, more than 60 MIT students applied for the six coveted spots. All the MIT students brought with them not only their high intellect, but a deep and open curiosity about the world. They were open to learning from their South African experience and were willing to share not only their love of their subject, but also their life experiences.
As a result of their positive posture, the students from the ISASA member schools quickly formed a rapport with their MIT instructors. The feedback from the programme revealed that seeing undergraduate women students interested in engineering and STEM encouraged many of the girls on the programme to consider these fields for their university studies. Another highlight of the programme for the ISASA pupils was their introduction to Python as a programming language. This seminar encouraged active learning and, at the end of the
course, student teams, led by their MIT instructors, presented on their PSET. It was so moving to see tears of pride from some of the MIT tutors as their teams presented on their work.
ISASA is immensely grateful to the MIT students: Jenna Aronson, Bruke Kifle, Daly Wettermark, Zulkayda Mamat, Jeba Sania, and Quilee Simeon. We wish them every success in their studies and know that they are going to make significant contributions that will make the world a better place. Also, without the logistical assistance of Ari Jacobovits at MIT, this programme would not have been able to succeed. ISASA is also indebted to its member schools who have hosted this programme.

Make sure your students are there next year!
The relationship between ISASA and MIT continues to grow and we were thrilled to have been visited in January 2019 by Professor Sive. At our meeting it was confirmed that the MIT/ISASA Programme would continue. Next year, member schools are encouraged to send pupils who are interested in mathematics and the sciences to this enriching, week-long programme. The 2020 aim is for the programme to expand from 60 to 100 participants. ISASA will continue to seek out and take advantage of such world-class opportunities for the benefit of our membership.

1. See:
2. See: algorithm_design.htm
3. See:
4. See:

Category: Autumn 2019

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