Marita Cheng – Australian of the year 2012

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Recently, Marita was a guest speaker at the Hastings Education Fund Launch. Her chosen career path, engineering, and her passion for education is helping to inspire the next generation of Australian students …

Marita, tell us a bit about your family background and schooling …

Four years before I was born, my parents married, then moved to Cairns from Hong Kong to start a new life together. A month after I was born, my parents got divorced. My mum took my brother and I to a women’s shelter and lived there for a few months, bathing me in the tiny bathroom sink.

I grew up in housing commission. My mum believed in education and worked 7-day weeks, first as a kitchen hand and then as a room attendant, in order to ensure that my brother and I got the best education she could afford.

We went to Catholic schools, took piano lessons, Japanese lessons, maths, and even basketball, soccer and swimming. Mum put every single dollar of hers into our educations, so that our lives would be better than hers.

And it wasn’t just money. After I started learning the piano, for the first few years my mum drove me to my piano teacher’s house every day, because we couldn’t afford a piano at home. In return, we were expected to work hard, so that all her efforts were not in vain.

You had a love of reading at a young age that sparked your imagination …

When I was 9, I was handed a book by my school for National Book Week. It was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from the Teen Power Inc series – a crime-solving adventure book. I read the entire book and was instantly entranced by reading. I read the rest of the books in the series, and then anything and everything I could get my hands on.

Reading enabled me to access information and learn what my mother couldn’t teach me. It enabled me to learn beyond the scope of what my classroom could teach me, about the world and all the different places and things that I had never done and experienced.

We went to the library every single week, and I borrowed as many books as I could – 20 each week, and then I would sit there and devour them for hours and hours each day. This education has given me a most vivid imagination.

Despite my love of reading, I knew that I wanted a career in the maths and sciences, because I liked the fact that if you used the rules and principles, you could come up with a consistent outcome every time and that you could contribute to those rules and principles and add to the body of knowledge in the world.

Where did the interest in engineering begin?

A few things helped me make my decision to study engineering. I knew that you needed maths and science for it, that there were worldwide travel opportunities, there was no set career path, it paid well, and that you could work on interesting and world-changing projects … and they all sounded like good things.

The other thing was attending an outreach program, a weeklong engineering camp called the ‘Engineering Link Project’, where I spent 4 days learning about 4 different disciplines of engineering. I had a really awesome time there and was very inspired by all the possibilities of engineering.

My mum thought I should study medicine, because it leads to a really prestigious, stable and well-paying job as a doctor, and it has a really clear career path, where you study at uni, do a residency, become a doctor, then study some more and become a specialist. It’s just all laid out for you.

So in December, just after I’d finished Year 12, I came down to Melbourne to do an interview for medicine at Monash University. At the interview, they gave me a scenario that they told me to react to. John’s parents wanted him to study law, but he wanted to study history. What should John do? While they were telling the story, I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat. They had found out I was a fake! So I said, “John should study history, because that’s his passion”. After the interview ended, I called my mum and said that I was going to do engineering, and that was that.

Tell us about Robogals …

During my second year of university, I was in the winning team of an entrepreneurship competition, and the head of the electrical engineering department, Professor Jamie Evans, presented the award. I approached him afterwards and asked whether his department would be able to provide some funding for my friends and I to build a simple robot. He said that he was looking for a group of engineering students to go to a school and teach classes of 12-year-olds robotics.

Between the ages of 10-14, students haven’t decided on their senior-year subjects and still have the power to determine what they study in the future. We could actually make a difference to the number of girls who chose to study engineering at university! I went away and thought, if we can teach girls at one school, why don’t we just teach girls at all the schools? I recruited my friends, and we designed robotics lessons, called schools and recruited even more volunteers. And so … Robogals was born.

Robogals aims to get girls interested in engineering and technology tertiary studies and careers. Our primary activity is running robotics workshops for girls using LEGO NXT robots, while explaining what engineering is. We introduce engineering into students’ vocabulary from a young age;  we tell them engineering is the practical application of science to make things in the world better. We run fun activities to engage students in engineering topics.

In the first three months, Robogals taught 124 girls from 5 schools in Melbourne. At the end of that year, I empowered a new President and left Robogals Melbourne to run without me, while I went on exchange for 10-months to Imperial College, London. It was so overwhelming being in such a large city that even though I wanted to start up a Robogals chapter there, I didn’t know how to begin!

I realised that there was nothing like Robogals in London; so, if I wanted to make a difference to the young girls there, I would need to be the one who did it. No one showed up to the first two Robogals meetings I held in London, but I persisted, and finally, many volunteers and many months later, I found two very committed female engineering students, who spearheaded the organisation in the UK.

While in the UK, I noticed that student organisations tended to not only be in one university: they tended to be national – probably because England is so small. I decided that was what I wanted for Robogals in Australia. If we were national, we would make an even bigger impact.

I contacted 4 other universities in Australia to gauge their responses – all were positive! After months of back-and-forth emails and planning, we held the first Robogals Conference at Melbourne University in September 2009, just 13 months after Robogals was born.

We now have new Robogals chapters at the University of New South Wales, University of Queensland, University of Adelaide and University of Western Australia.

We have also developed the Robogals Rural and Regional program, and introduced the Robogals Science Challenge, a national competition for girls aged 5 -18, where girls find problems in their schools, homes and communities, create a project to solve the problem, and then film a 4-minute video of their project to win some great prizes.

In 2012 you were named the Young Australian of the Year. How has this affected you?

It’s given me this fantastic opportunity to travel around the country and meet people from all walks of life. I’ve been able to meet and befriend business and thought leaders in the country who can make changes that affect the direction of the country. As well, I think it’s helped give Robogals and me credibility in our vision, how we’re choosing to execute on that vision and our ability to do so. It’s an amazing opportunity and honour, and I’m still coming to terms with it all!

Thanks Marita.

This story was published in issue 78 of Port Macquarie Focus 

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