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17 April 2019 | Story Leonie Bolleurs
Science ambassadors
Friends Tekano Mbonani and Chaka Mofokeng are pursuing graduate degrees in respectively Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS) and Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape. The two got together and decided to reach out to the high school, Leseding Technical Secondary School, where they came from.

It was a full house as more than 120 learners packed the hall at the Leseding Technical Secondary School in the Free State, where two young Astronomy researchers had come home to tell their younger peers about their studies and career prospects across South Africa.

Chaka Mofokeng and Tekano Mbonani are both former learners at the high school. Currently pursuing graduate degrees – for Mbonani in Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS), and for Mofokeng in Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape – the two friends got together and decided to reach out to the high school where they came from.

The event took place in January before schoolwork, tests, and exam preparations are occupying learners’ minds, inviting them to think about the big picture – the future, and how to be part of it. This is timely, because in July last year, the MeerKAT radio telescope was inaugurated in the Karoo. The MeerKAT is the first step to the international SKA telescope project, but it is already one of the best radio telescopes in the world and has placed South Africa firmly on the world map of radio astronomy and engineering.

Building a bridge
“This project enables us to build a bridge between secondary and tertiary institutions. Currently focused on senior secondary students, we aim to promote science through outreach events and activities. Using science and technology-based activities and events, such as stargazing at an observatory or exploring the universe in a planetarium, we want to attract these future secondary graduates. We also provide mentorship, hoping to help them improve their academic performance in matric,” said Mbonani.

For a whole morning, they spoke about their journeys, about science, about the skills that scientists acquire during their studies and all the opportunities such studies open up in an era where the 4th Industrial Revolution is predicted to reduce the number of jobs in many traditional professions. They addressed their peers in both English and Sesotho.

Astronomy in South Africa contributes to critical-skills development. Investing in the MeerKAT, for example, meant that over a thousand bursaries were made available through the SKA South Africa Human Capacity Development programme. Young scientists like Mofokeng and Mbonani have the opportunity to be part of MeerKAT science projects through their studies, using machine learning and other skills that are high in demand in today’s world. This was one of the messages they brought home.

Gaining new skills

“As an Astronomy research student, I have gained skills such as data analysis, mathematical modelling, communication and writing, programming, and teamwork, among others. These are requirements for most companies and institutions. With the unfolding of the 4th Industrial Revolution, such skills sets make young and aspiring scientists the perfect candidates for making the most of future opportunities,” reflected Mofokeng.

Most of the learners said they have never attended a science-outreach event. They were inspired by the young scientists’ stories and nearly half of them said they could see themselves pursuing a career in science. The learners also expressed a strong interest in more events of this kind, as well as mentorship during Grades 11 and 12 from peers at university. They asked about the salaries earned by astronomers, how long the studies take, and where astronomers are working in South Africa.

This initiative, started by two bright young scientists, hopefully marks the beginning of many more events of this kind. Mofokeng and Mbonani are already planning what to do on their next trip home.

News Archive

Community of Qwaqwa gives Prof Petersen a warm Basotho welcome
2017-05-16

 

 Description: Prof Petersen with Basotho hat and blanket Tags: Prof Petersen with Basotho hat and blanket

 Prof Francis Petersen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State
Photo: Ian van Straaten

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Various stakeholders pledged their support to the newly-appointed Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State (UFS), Prof Francis Petersen, during the first in a series of welcoming events that was held at the Qwaqwa Campus on Thursday 11 May 2017.

A message of support and welcome from the Paramount Queen of the Bakoena Royal Council, Mofumahadi Mathokoana Mopeli, took everybody in attendance back three decades to the time when the campus was first established.

“The Qwaqwa Campus of the then University of the North was created to swell this area and the broader Eastern Free State with intellectual capacity,” she said.

“It is with this in mind that we encourage you, Prof Petersen, to continue upholding the best of your predecessors. Search for what they could not achieve and learn from that. Traditional leadership in this area will always be a friend to the university,” she added.

Description: Community of Qwaqwa gives Prof Petersen a warm Basotho welcome Tags: Community of Qwaqwa gives Prof Petersen a warm Basotho welcome

Prof Petersen received a warm Basotho
welcome from Morena Thokoana Mopeli and
Paramount Queen Mofumahadi Mathokoana Mopeli of
the Bakoena Royal Council. With them is
Mrs Cheslyn Petersen.
Photo: Thabo Kessah

The Thabo Mofutsanyana Education District was represented by the Acting District Director, Lindiwe Mabaso, who expressed the district’s pride in being associated with the university.

“Our district is excelling in Mathematics and Science, and this can be attributed to the educators that we get from the Qwaqwa Campus. We are proud to say that we are number one nationally when it comes to Mathematics and Science, and this is through the support we get from the campus. Our schools will continue to be centres of excellence under the new leadership of Prof Petersen,” she said.

Staff and students weigh in

Both Nehawu and Uvpersu expressed their optimism in working with Prof Petersen.

Branch chairperson of Nehawu, Teboho Pitso, said the union appreciated the fact that Prof Petersen was taking over the leadership of the institution at a very difficult time, both institutionally and nationally.

“As workers, we are faced with a lot of challenges and we hope that none of us will be retrenched under your leadership,” he said to an appreciative audience consisting of various internal and external stakeholders.

Acting Chairperson of UVPERSU, Khethiwe Biyo, said the workers’ union was happy that Prof Petersen believed in teamwork.

“Your commitment in working with us is appreciated. We look forward to learning from you about institutional innovation,” she said.

Students were represented by the Qwaqwa Campus SRC President, Njabulo Mwali, who expressed the need for a deeper and detailed transformation process.

“Your expertise and skills have set you above all other aspirant applicants for this position, and we hope that we will learn a lot on this journey,” he said.

“We at the UFS are actively, intentionally,
and continuously engaged in promoting
diversity.”

"Ensure fairness" 

In his response, Prof Petersen emphasised the importance of inclusivity and innovativeness. He said, “Staff and students at the three sites of learning must do all they can to ensure that the UFS realises its goal of being an inclusive institution, one that provides equal access and opportunities to everyone, makes a conscious effort to prevent discrimination, and ensure fairness.”

“Being committed to inclusivity means that we at the UFS are actively, intentionally, and continuously engaged in promoting diversity. This diversity is expressed through our people and through the curriculum, and in the way we work with our communities to promote awareness, empathy, and understanding of the complex ways individuals interact. As you know, our ultimate goal as a university is not only to educate young people up to the point that they graduate. What they learn during their time with us should help shape them into people who can think innovatively in order to address the challenges that face us in the 21st century,” he said.

The Qwaqwa Campus Chorale and the award-winning choir from The Beacon Secondary School in Phuthaditjhaba provided the entertainment.

Similar events will respectively be hosted on the South and Bloemfontein Campuses on 18 and 19 May 2017.

 

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