Nanosatellites of Hope

How the UniSat educational program fulfils dreams and challenges stereotypes about women in STEM

Margarita Bocharova
Амина Пусурманова, 17 лет, на месте запуска наноспутника в рамках программы UniSat. Село Акши, Алматинская область, Казахстан.
UNICEF Kazakhstan/2022/RuslanKostrykin
20 June 2022

In November 2014, Interstellar, a sci-fi masterpiece about space, premiered in Kazakhstan. Amina Pusurmanova, a 10-year-old girl, was among those who watched the Oscar-winning Hollywood movie. Today, years later, she recalls that watching it then whipped up her interest in space. However, at that time she could not imagine that her childish fascination would lead her to personally launch an ultramodern nanosatellite into the stratosphere.

The 17-year-old recalls that on the eve of her admission to the university last year, the situation in the family was tense: “Mom wanted me to become a teacher. Dad wanted me to become a military officer. My grandmother wanted me to be a doctor. But I’m afraid of blood!” Amina wavered between IT and law. The second choice turned out to be better: “I’m a first-year law student at the International Taraz Innovative Institute,” she said.

Амина Пусурманова, 17 лет, перед запуском наноспутника в рамках программы  UniSat. Село Акши, Алматинская область, Казахстан.

Amina shares that she’s in love with her future profession, adores the sound of French and Turkish and is fascinated by Japanese comics. It seems that such versatility and openness led her to participate in the UniSat educational program, organized by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Al-Farabi Kazakh National University.

The UniSat project aims to popularize STEM education among girls, promote nanosatellite development studies, as well as improve such skills as teamwork, public speaking, time management and creativity.

- Sputnik?

- Yes.

- In Almaty?

- Yes.

- Why am I not surprised?

This was Amina’s conversation with her mother before the full-time part of her training began. As she was speaking, she mentioned her love for her mother several times: “Mom now approves all I do, supports me in everything, and I am very grateful for that. It’s so unusual to get so much support – there are five of us at home, and I’m the oldest.” With a similar fondness she recalled saying goodbye to her father before she left. Her father is proud of his daughter and her passion for science: “My daughter is eager to learn all this. I’m glad and grateful that you (the organizers of the project - ed.) lead young students, open their horizons.”

The next day, the freshman found herself in the company of more than 150 girls from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. All of them came to Almaty during Nauryz holiday to take part in a 10-day marathon of engineering, design, programming, and spacecraft assembly. Sixteen other girls came from Taraz along with Amina. “When we first heard [about the UniSat program], we thought it was something impossible and very exciting. When we came and saw everything with our own eyes, we realized that it was all possible,” she says.

Слева направо: участницы программы UniSat Айнур Балтабаева, Гульназ Бейсембек, Асылзат Диханбай, Акбота Койшыбаева и ментор программы Карабаев Нурсейт. Алматы, Казахстан.

Since October 2021, Amina has been engaged in online learning with Al-Farabi Kazakh National University’s open online education platform. The theory, she admits, was not easy, but the effort was worth it and her final test results were good. Amina received the opportunity to put the theory to practice.

“When you study the theory, look at all these diagrams, it seems very complex. But when we went through it all in practice, it turned out quite easy,” shares Amina.

She was particularly inspired by the process of designing the casing of a nanosatellite using 3D-modelling.

Амина Пусурманова, 17 лет, спаивает элементы микросхемы наноспутника. Алматы, Казахстан.

“When we modeled the casing, and when this model was 3D-printed and we saw what we had designed, we were proud that our work had been printed,” smiles Amina. Then, under the watchful eye of mentors, the girls assembled nanosatellites. The culmination of the project was the launch of the assembled nanosatellites into the stratosphere. Amina was overexcited. She shows how her legs were trembling and she couldn’t sit still, and laments that she overslept on such an important day.

Despite all the nervousness, three nanosatellites flew into the stratosphere on March 28, 2022. It was the result of the joint effort of the girls from three Central Asian countries and their mentors. Over the course of a few days, the project participants, who had previously only seen each other online, grew to become friends. “We shared phone numbers with each other and connected on social media so we can stay in touch. I hope that in the future, when they come to Taraz, Almaty or Taldykorgan, I’ll meet them and we’ll remember these times,” Amina said of her new friends from different cities and countries.

She is confident that the program is more than just assembling and launching satellites. For her, participating in the course turned into an exciting exchange of energy and perspectives between girls from different cultures. In addition, Amina admits that she received a unique experience of being supported by teammates. “For example, KiCad was a bit hard to learn for me, but the girls from Uzbekistan explained it to me. I could then use it on my own,” she recalls. Fierce competition was not the case: “We compete without hurting each other, our honor or our rights, but do it honestly. We learn and demonstrate what we have learned,” continues Amina.

Амина Пусурманова, 17 лет, собирает корпус наноспутника под руководством ментора из КазНУ им. аль-Фараби. Алматы, Казахстан.

According to Amina, the training was held in different formats: from simple lectures to exciting master classes and mini-games. During the games, girls honed their teamwork skills, their sensitivity to each other. “I don’t regret coming here. Some girls want to work in this field but don’t know where to start. I think this program is perfect for them,” Amina says. And while she has no intention of abandoning her law studies, she now has a clear intention of developing science at her university.

“We have plans to open our own lab with a similar specialization. We have been here for ten days, we have put all the theory to practice and we will teach all this now to other students. Not only girls, but also boys,” shares Amina. Amina emphasized that gender inequality is a relic of the past, and appealed to the next generation of girls to “be active and dream.”

UniSat program participants before the nanosatellite launch

“The UniSat program is a huge chance for girls to fulfill their dreams,” said the program graduate. “We can do what others do. Anything is possible if you try hard enough.” Especially, Amina adds, with supportive parents, inspiring mentors and understanding teachers at the university.