Girls Reach for the Stars

How Kazakhstan's nanosatellite program prepares girls for the future of work

Kimberly Chriscaden, Communications Specialist, Gender
Young girls gather to participate in UNICEF Kazakhstan's nanosatellite program
UNICEF/Kazakhstan
18 June 2020

As a young girl in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Amina Sadu loved reading the encyclopedia. From dinosaurs to ancient Greek mythology, she immersed herself in study.

In the book, The Myths of Ancient Greece, she discovered the story of the inventor Daedalus, who built wings made with wax so he and his son Icarus could fly.

Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too high or the sun would melt the wax, and not to fly too low or the seawater would wet his wings. But Icarus flies too high anyway, his wings melt and he falls to his death.

The story cemented Amina’s love for science. She wanted to make her own “wings” that could withstand the heat of the sun, but it would take several more years of studying biology, physics and astronomy, before she would get her chance to “fly”.

In March, Amina, now age 17, was selected as one of 20 adolescent girls and young women aged 14 to 35 years to take part in Kazakhstan’s first UniSat nanosatellite programme for girls.

“I am a dreamer and if I want to achieve a goal, I’ll do my best to realize it.

I have no fear of mistakes. I’ll try 1000 times and even if there’s 1000 failures, I’ll make 1001 attempts.”

Amina Sadu (2nd from left) participating in Kazakhstan’s first UniSat nanosatellite programme for girls along with other young women.
UNICEF/Zhunisbekov
Amina Sadu (2nd from left) participating in Kazakhstan’s first UniSat nanosatellite programme for girls along with other young women.

Reach for the stars

Launched by UNICEF and the Science and Technology Park of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, the UniSat project is a free 5-month course that teaches young women how to engineer, design, programme, assemble, test and launch nanosatellites or small spacecraft weighing no more than 10 kg.

Taught by leading aerospace experts, the young women from varying backgrounds and abilities aim to successfully launch nanosatellites into the upper atmosphere. Due to COVID-19 and national lockdowns, the girls have been learning online since March. However, they are working together to find solutions, record data, write reports and give presentations in a safe and supportive environment.

“Our programme stresses the value of failure as a learning exercise, allows students to build confidence and resilience, and enables them to keep going even when the going gets tough.

After all, failure is part of a process that ultimately leads to success.”

Raushan Ibrasheva, Innovation Officer, UNICEF Kazakhstan

Preparing girls for the future of work

In Kazakhstan, youth aged 10 to 24 make up almost one fifth of the population, yet education is not keeping pace with the skills needed in today’s global economy, including skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). UNICEF is working with the government and partners to mainstream STEM education, particularly programmes for girls and young women.

“There is still a perception and thinking among the general population that girls should not build careers in science and other frontier tech industries,” says Raushan. “The UniStat project is an opportunity to boost girls’ interest in aerospace careers and children’s overall interest in space throughout the country.”

Young women, aged 14 to 35 years, were invited to take part in Kazakhstan's first UniSat nanosatellite programme — an opportunity to boost girls' interest in science and other frontier tech industries such as aerospace.
UNICEF/Kazakhstan
Young women, aged 14 to 35 years, were invited to take part in Kazakhstan's first UniSat nanosatellite programme — an opportunity to boost girls' interest in science and other frontier tech industries such as aerospace.

Beyond hard skills, such as those in STEM, the project also aims to develop soft skills, such as team work, communication, and project management so that the girls can apply what they have learned in a variety of scenarios, including their future workplaces.

Since participants range in age from 14-35 years, older participants mentor younger participants throughout the course, and support one another to build a professional network for future careers.

If the pilot project is successful, UNICEF and partners hope to scale up the project in Kazakhstan and launch a Global Cubesat Challenge so teams across the world can submit successful designs.

 

Determined to keep flying high

At first, Amina struggled with the heavy programming and engineering aspects of the project because she did not have any previous knowledge of nanosatellites or engineering. She originally applied because she was curious and has a passion for learning. However, through the support and patience of her instructors, her interest grew, and her fears disappeared.

“It's always difficult at first to adapt and accept knowledge that you haven't studied, but when interest is awakened in you it becomes easier over time. That's what happened to me,” she says.

“If you're afraid to do something because you're scared, you have to gather all your will and take one step. I think this experience has opened up opportunities for me that I didn't even dream of, because I'm no longer afraid of rejection.”

Amina now dreams of working in theoretical physics with the goal of understanding the universe. Additionally, she hopes to create a school for children from low-income families, so they too are given a chance to learn.