JULY 2015

Teenage girls take first steps towards becoming scientists, engineers and mathematicians at the inaugural First Avenue Institute Girls Winter Camp

Successful week-long high tech programme for teenage girls shows huge potential for excellent long term results

In June 2015 a group of ten hand-picked high school girls arrived at University of Johannesburg TechnoLab, where they would take their first steps towards becoming engineers and scientists. It is hoped that through support programmes like the First Avenue Institute Girls Winter Camp, that in the not-too-distant future these young achievers will take up studies in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at the University of Johannesburg

On a chilly winter Monday morning at the end of June, ten enthusiastic young ladies, between the ages of 14 and 17, arrived at University of Johannesburg TechnoLab, where they would spend the week in an intensive training programme that would expose them to activities that aim to encourage them to consider a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) based industry.

The inaugural First Avenue Institute Girls Winter Camp was the culmination of nine months of effort by a small group of educators and business executives, who hold the belief that through this initiative coupled with a programme of ongoing support, that these young ladies will create jobs and make South Africa a better society by finding local solutions for local problems.

Black-owned investment firm First Avenue Investment Management, founders of First Avenue Institute and sponsor of the first Girls Winter Camp at UJ TechnoLab, aims to make a positive contribution to youth development and education with its corporate social responsibility programme. In a unique partnership with the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment (FEBE) at the University of Johannesburg, this progressive investment management company decided to do something about the chronic shortage of young black women in the STEM fields.

The niece of a director at First Avenue attended a University of New Hampshire Girls Camp, where participation had such a positive effect on her that First Avenue decided to try start its own program in South Africa for young people that might not get an opportunity to participate in an American programme.

First Avenue Institute anticipated that South Africa might present its own challenges in terms of STEM based camps, but the University of New Hampshire (UNH) got behind the initiative. Ms Busisiwe Mthethwa, who manages the First Avenue Institute on behalf of First Avenue Investment Management, visited the University of Johannesburg Kingsway Road campus and decided UJ TechnoLab would be the perfect venue for the first local camp.

UJ TechnoLab offers a range of exciting pre-engineering activities, including building structures using systems like Fischer Technic and the RobotScience project at UJ TechnoLab has a specific focus on building electronics and control systems, where teenagers from disadvantaged communities build a small desktop robot and program it to drive through a maze.

Girls were selected from schools in disadvantaged communities around Johannesburg, and Prof Robert Henry at UNH was invited to travel from the USA to join UJ TechnoLab to assist in making the Girls Winter Camp a success.


After being welcomed at UJ TechnoLab by Prof Robert Henry from UNH and the TechnoLab staff, the girls attended a presentation on the importance of mathematics by qualified engineer and UJ lecturer Ms Nkhume Tshiongo-Makgwe. Next, an afternoon of team building and then to bed after an exhausting day.


On Tuesday morning, training in robotics. Then a visit by a delegation including Google executives who chatted to the girls about their interests and ambitions. That evening, the tired but triumphant group of future engineers and scientists retired to their residence where they watched a movie called Spare Parts a true story underprivileged Hispanic teenagers in the USA who beat big budget university teams in a robotics challenge.


On Wednesday morning, a training session in soldering and electronics, then a field trip to the Sci-Bono science centre in Newtown, Johannesburg, to operate the science displays demonstrating the basic principles of electricity. Back at the TechnoLab, the First Avenue Institute Girls Winter Camp received another VIP visit, this time executives from Microsoft South Africa. Then a trip to a production studio to appear on a live television show to talk about the First Avenue Institute Girls Winter Camp.


On Thursday morning a field trip to The Airplane Factory where the girls received a fascinating guided tour of a facility that makes light aircraft from start to finish. In the afternoon the ladies were transported to The Long Table where they were trained in dining etiquette and presentation. Prof Robert Henry (UNH) and Mrs Nancy Henry were guests of honour and dined on a three course meal prepared and served by the girls. Prof Robert Henry and the girls exchanged anecdotes on linguistic expressions unique to both countries.


On Friday morning Ms Tumi Mketi, Deputy Director-General in the South African Presidency and a senior executive at University of Johannesburg, spoke to the girls about leadership and perseverance. Then a session with The Voice Clinic aimed at equipping the girls with writing and communication skills, followed by another team work session. Late on Friday, undaunted by the hard work of an intensive week of training, each girl built a small electronic circuit with the RobotScience project assisted by Coach Michael and Prof Henry.


On Saturday morning TechnoLab manager Willie Viljoen presented a training session on electricity, and a Fischer Technic building challenge where the dedication of Prof Robert Henry came to the fore ensuring that each young lady achieved a successful outcome. Coach Michael noted that back in the USA it was the Fourth of July, and invited Prof Henry to share the meaning of this holiday with the girls. The day ended with a traditional South African braai.


On Sunday Prof Henry made a presentation to the parents about UNH Girls Camps in the USA and the importance of equipping youth with skills from an early age, Coach Michael from the RobotScience project spoke about what parents could do to support their daughters. In the final presentation to parents, the 10 young ladies shared their experience of the camp and thanked First Avenue Institute for sponsoring this initiative and their support during this week.


At the end of the first camp, each young lady indicated they would like to continue the pre-engineering training. First Avenue Institute undertook to sponsor their participation in the AfrikaBot 2016 competition, whereby they would each build their own robot in a series of Saturday morning workshops.

The University of Johannesburg hopes to see each one of these young ladies attend the Orange Carpet event where high school learners with scores in all subjects above 75% can apply for a bursary.

First Avenue Institute is delighted with the First Avenue Institute Girls Winter Camp, and want to grow the programme and establish Girls Winter Camps in every major centre in South Africa. The First Avenue Institute has managed to get the University of New Hampshire to commit two bursaries to young ladies that come out of the winter camps and achieve excellent final grades.

For more information on future winter camps and programmes and how to get involved, please contact:

Busisiwe Mthethwa on 083 709 5146 / fainstitute@firstavenue.co.za


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