A team of Montanans - high on solving the lack of science and math in South African schools - has won the first-ever Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund award.

The group will teach vital STEM curricula to girls in sub-Saharan Africa early in 2020. The $10,000 grant will cover the faculty’s work in March.

Comprised of Missoula lawyer Ellie Hill Smith, University of Montana chemistry graduate Tyler Smith, plus two Great Falls retired math professors, the team’s plan is one of 25 winning projects selected.

“There were a lot of other Montana agencies that applied,” Hill told the Missoula Current. “This is a brand new funding source. We try to replicate what we’re doing in Montana at schools around the world.”

The team’s mission is to boost the U.S. government’s investment in international exchanges – and support public service projects behind the expertise, skills and knowledge of “citizen alumni” who previously traveled abroad on government-funded exchange programs.

Cynthia and David Thomas of Great Falls, both retired professors and Fulbright scholars, join the team in its mission: to open doors for women and girls in STEM disciplines - science, technology, engineering and math.

"We know we have to improve on-the-ground engagement with girls in order to see progress,” said Hill Smith, a Montana state legislator. “Girls need to meet women leaders, and be exposed to authentic understanding of STEM careers, and access to female role models. The objective is to create future leaders among the students.”

STEM skills are imperative to providing communities with problem-solving tools. In the poorest schools in sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than 1 in 100 students receive STEM education.

Tyler Smith
Tyler Smith

The team will partner with University of Pretoria college students and faculty members in South Africa. They will oversee a pilot program in a nearby township to connect girls with college-aged mentors and local professionals while teaching them math skills.

"Partnering these teenage girls with college-aged mentors makes the possibility of next steps in education and leadership development accessible," said Hill. "Through this grant, we are able to pilot larger-scale, long-term partnerships to replicate. My passion is gender equity in STEM and leadership development not just in Montana, but worldwide."

Science lessons will include topics on gender equality, maternal health, global warming, empowerment activities, AIDS interventions and sustainable agriculture.

In turn, the Montana team will provide hands-on, community-based lessons, teach skills, build confidence in students and expand educational opportunities for them.

Universally, educators regard the state of science and mathematics in South African schools as an 'international crisis,” according to a press release. Studies show that such mentoring programs improve women’s participation in STEM.

Girls, mostly, do not attend school in most sub-Saharan Africa, where basic quality education remains a challenge.

“Educating girls in sub-Saharan Africa is critical to achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, especially those associated with improved maternal health, universal primary education, and reducing acute poverty in the region,” reads the press release.

Within the curriculum is an extracurricular math modeling program for secondary school girls, age 14 to 17.

“We want those girls to move on in life,” added Hill. “It’s that idea of teaching a girl to lead. We know it has results in our own country and world-wide.”

Only 3.1% of black people over age 20 have a university degree in South Africa. Only one in three young people is employed.

The Montana team has set up a Go Fund Me campaign to assist in buying educational supplies for the program and to celebrate the girls and their mentors in a graduation award ceremony.

Hill said depending on the pilot program’s success, her group could replicate it in other parts of South Africa.

“We will be there for the entire month of March,” said Hill. “There’s the potential that some Fulbright folks and others who have contacted with me will partner with us.”

Previously, Hill visited Egypt, Jordan and the Middle East as an alumni of the bipartisan American Council of Young Political Leaders.

Contact Business Reporter Renata Birkenbuel at 406-565-0013 and renatab@missoulacurrent.com.