Due to her dedication in promoting the engineering industry to women across the world, Marita has been recognized as a world leader in the growth of the women student population in technology schools. She has received numerous awards and recognitions for her endeavors, which include being listed as one of the 25 Most Powerful Influential Young People in the World, winning the Young Leader Medal from the Herald Sun Pride (a famous publication company in Australia), and being named as the 2012 Young Australian of the Year.
An Activist at a Young Age
For a girl of her age, Marita has such an amazing affinity for robotics. Marita developed this interest since she was very young, and through the years has become very proficient in it that she has was recognized as one of Australia’s most famous engineers—which truly is an accomplishment, given that a lot of engineers take a lot of years to build up their career and only become known when they are in their late twenties or early thirties.
Marita believes that having a formal education is important in ensuring a good future, but she also balances the situation by often telling her fellow youth students to not completely rely on having a degree in making sure that their future is secure.
Marita often states that technology is a hands-on industry, and that students must focus more on the applications of what they have learned rather than constantly studying theories in school. When she was asked in an interview about what she thought of formal education as the primary means of achieving dreams, Marita answered:
“In my case, not very, because I want to be a technology entrepreneur, and that can only be learned by doing! Having said that, I feel like my time at university has been very valuable because over the course of my degree I’ve grown so much as a person in terms of my life skills, in additional to the technical knowledge that we learn in the classroom.”
One of the main reasons that Marita continues to encourage her fellow young women to take up engineering courses is the vast potential for career growth that the industry offers. Having witnessed just how wide the range of businesses an engineering graduate can start, Marita is convinced that technicians and engineers are needed more than ever today. Marita often states in her speeches:
“I think the engineering degree is really good because it leaves so many doors open to get involved in engineering, or business or finance. When I was an exchange student in London, practically everyone who graduated from engineering went into banking or an area like that!”
Marita Cheng was born on March 5, 1989, one of the two children born to a single mother who lived in a housing commission in Cairns, Queensland, Australia. Her biological father left them before Marita was born, which prompted her mother to take care of Marita and her brother. In spite of this quite difficult situation, Marita’s mother never gave up on her two children and did her best to provide a good life for Marita and her brother.
The laid back and simple life in Cairns, which had a population of about a hundred thousand people, helped Marita’s mother in taking care of her and her brother because there was less stress and the cost of living was far cheaper compared to the bigger cities.
Due to the love and care that was given to her by her mother even when she was very young, Marita developed a very positive attitude and outlook in life. In spite of growing up without a father, Marita was satisfied with the parenting of her mother, who always ensured her children’s convenience above her own. Marita’s mother also kept on encouraging the young Marita to always dream big and never let the disappointments keep her from achieving her goals in life.
Developing a Keen Interest in Robotics
Marita’s interest in technology, especially the field of robotics, was developed at a very young age, which was quite surprising given the fact that she lived in a small community with a simple lifestyle. As a young girl who loved watching educational channels and science fiction stories, Marita often imagined how cool it would be if people were to let the robots do their work for them. In fact, in an interview made with her many years later, Marita cited one of the reasons that got her very interested in the field of robotics:
“I always thought they were really cool from when I was growing up. My mum would get me to do the housework when I was younger and begrudgingly I would think it would be great if I had a robot to do the housework for me! I just thought it would be a cool industry to get involved in.”
Due to her interest in technology, plus the encouragement she received from her mother, Marita became a very bright and intelligent student. During her elementary years, Marita developed a love for mathematics and the sciences, and started doing experimental work on their appliances at home.
Marita was also often praised by her teachers for her creative skills and quick thinking, and she graduated from elementary with outstanding remarks. This continued on during her high school years, where Marita became among the top students of the school. She also joined various clubs and often participated in volunteer activities.
Named Cairns Young Citizen of the Year
When she graduated in 2006, Marita’s grades were excellent enough to put her into the top 0.2 percent of Australia’s high school graduates at that time, winning her several awards in the areas of mathematics, piano and Japanese, as well as being named as the Cairns Young Citizen of the Year.
In 2007, Maria won a Paterson Scholarship to study at the University of Melbourne. When she took up a course in Engineering (Mechatronics) and Computer Science, Marita was very surprised that in all of the students of the university that took up engineering courses, she was among the very few girls that actually studied a technology course. In fact, during her first year at the school, Marita recalled how there were only about two or three girls in her class.
Getting More Girls to Study Engineering
Realizing how small the population of women taking up engineering courses were, and seeing how great the potential of building a good career was in studying technology courses, Marita began to wonder why there were so few women who entered the fray.
Through meeting with her fellow women students in the school and talking with them, Marita began to realize that all throughout the years, most of the women were imprisoned in a mind-set that engineering is a male-only field. During an interview made with her years later, Marita explained the reasons as to why very few girls studied engineering:
“It’s a number of factors. Firstly, teachers and career counselors tend to persuade women away from engineering and many sciences because they feel that law or medicine are better professions for high achieving female students. Engineering isn’t very well marketed compared to other professions and having role models in the industry is important. Also, kids aren’t encouraged enough to stick to the hard maths and physics classes at school which puts them on the back foot and makes them less inclined to choose engineering as a career. There is also a lack of education about what being an engineer actually involves.”
Determined to change that kind of thinking, Marita began a campaign to increase the awareness of the benefits of studying engineering and draw more students in applying for technology courses. After gaining approval from the engineering department of the University of Melbourne, Marita began to train girls like herself in robotics. In an interview, Marita recalled the beginnings of her campaign:
“I approached the head of the engineering department to get some funding to encourage more women to be involved in the course. We started off teaching year six girls robotics and I believe that encouraged them to take an interest in engineering. It was a way I could contribute to make a difference in the community.”
Marita Cheng Founds Robogals in 2008
It was not long after she started the campaign that the number of female students who took up engineering courses grew. Eventually, Marita realized that the people who supported the campaign grew so much in number that it had to be reorganized. And so, in 2008, Marita established Robogals, an organization aimed on encouraging women from all across Australia in boldly stepping into the fields of engineering and technology, a world that used to be dominated by men.
Robogals Goes Global
In March 2008, Marita went to London to study Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London. While there, she took the opportunity of expanding her organization’s reach and founded the Imperial College Robotics Club, where she invited numerous students to take up courses in technology and engineering through various robot shows in the school. The campaign was successful, and soon enough Marita began to take the Robogals mission on a global level.
After graduating from Imperial College London in 2009, Marita returned to Australia to continue her studies at the University of Melbourne. Sometime during that year, Marita organized a robot dance on the lawn of the university, which was attended by around 350 people. The event, which aimed to snatch the Guinness World Record for the largest robot dance, became a huge hit, being covered by radio stations and journalists from all over the country.
Marita Cheng in Anthill Australia’s 30Under30
That same year, Marita was included in the 30Under30 list of Anthill Australia, which showed just how much influence she has garnered through her organization Robogals.
In 2011, Robogals became internationally recognized as world leader in the area of youth social initiative by the International Youth Foundation. That same year, Marita received the Anita Borg Institute Change Agent Award for her efforts in promoting the engineering industry and encouraging students to take up courses in technology.
The following year, in 2012, Marita was included in Youth Service America’s list of the 25 Most Powerful and Influential Young People in the World; she was also named Young Australian of the Year for her outstanding work in the fields of robotics. In an interview made with Marita later on, she related how it felt winning the award:
“I think it is pretty interesting in that you’re the only winner out of many possible participants to win it. There is a lot of scope for what you can do and a lot of great opportunities. I have spoken to lots of people and met many interesting people, which I seem to be doing more and more of. I am learning so much from the role. In particular I am gaining more confidence and getting better with my public speaking. You realise that everyone everywhere is kind of the same in that they want to do well and have a good life. They also know the importance of friends and family and are supportive.”
Currently, Marita is looking to complete her studies at the University of Melbourne and fully venture into the technology-business world. An excellent student, loving daughter, and passionate person, Marita teaches us that there is more to your student life than just sitting in class and reading books. She states in an interview:
“I would advise people if they want to do cool stuff outside of their university studies, they should get a tutor to help them keep up with their university and stay-on-top of things academic-wise; because I know that outside projects can get very fun, engaging, and you can learn so many life skills, that you disengage from university.”
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Robogals Global
- Imperial College Robotics Club
- Foundation for Young Australians
- 2Mar Robotics
Awards and Achievements
- 2006: Received the Lions Youth of the Year Club Award
- 2006: Received the Excellence Award from the Australian College of Music
- 2007: Named the Cairns Young Citizen of the Year
- 2007: Received a Paterson Scholarship
- 2009: Included in the 30under30 list of the Australian Anthill magazine
- 2010: Received the ASLA Student Leader of the Year Award
- 2010: Awarded the Young Leader Medal by the Herald Sun Pride of Australia
- 2010: Included in the 30under30 list of the Australian Anthill magazine
- 2010: Included in the 25 Under 25 list of Triple J magazine
- 2011: Received a Creative Innovation 2011 Scholarship
- 2011: Included in the Top 100 Most Influential Creative Inspirational People by The Age Melbourne
- 2011: Included in the 30under30 list of the Australian Anthill magazine
- 2011: Received the Anita Borg Change Agent Award
- 2011: Named the Victorian Young Australian of the Year
- 2011: Conferred Fellowship by the International Youth Foundation
- 2011: Conferred Fellowship by the Nancy Fairfax Churchill Society
- 2012: Included in the 25 Most Powerful and Influential Young People in the World by Youth Service America
- 2012: Named the Young Australian of the Year
- 2012: Received the Diversity and Inclusion Award from the University of Melbourne
- 2012: Included in the 5 Under 25 Young Innovators to Watch in 2013 of Vibewire magazine