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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.

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Qwaqwa Campus honours academic excellence
2017-05-18

Description: QQ autumn Graduation 2017 Tags: QQ autumn Graduation 2017

Photo: Ian van Straaten

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Qwaqwa Campus kicked off the 2017 graduations season of the University of the Free State in style when over 550 degrees and certificates were conferred in three sessions on 12 and 13 May 2017. These included five PhDs from the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.

In his maiden speech delivered during the two ceremonies on Friday 12 May 2017, the newly-appointed Vice-Chancellor and Rector, Prof Francis Petersen, emphasised the interconnectedness of graduates with other stakeholders in their communities.

“Never forget the role played by other people who sacrificed a lot for you to be here today. Recognise the extra mile that someone was willing to go for you to graduate,” he said to an enthusiastic audience that included Grade 12 learners from neighbouring schools. 

Prof Petersen also reminded the graduates that not everybody had an opportunity to enter, enrol, and eventually graduate at a university. “You are part of the privileged few, and I am confident that the UFS has given you an equal opportunity to reach your full potential. You have had years of exposure to ideas and experiences on diversity. You now have the opportunity to show the world and to use what you have learnt beyond a classroom,” he added.

“Go out there and open doors for others as much as they were opened for you. I implore you to carry over your experiences of diversity and use them to build a better world. Go out there and build a better world, not only for yourself but for everyone in need. Expand your influence, reach out, and be accountable,” he said.

“South Africa needs your skills,
innovation, knowledge, expertise,
and creativity.”

Make your own unique contribution
The session held on Saturday 13 May 2017 saw the Principal of Motheo TVET College and Qwaqwa Campus alumnus, Dipiloane Phutsisi, having a heart to heart with the graduates from the Faculty of Education.

“Our contribution to the world as graduates will not be measured by the wealth we accumulate or the accolades we receive, but rather by the way in which we share our unique gifts with the world. And the only place to find those gifts is to look within yourself. As the class of 2017, make your own unique contribution,” she said.

“Your graduation takes place at a particularly challenging time in the history of our democracy. It happens at a time when our nation is engulfed by racial polarisation, anger, confusion about what democracy and freedom mean to us, and at a time when the pillars of morality are tested.”

“As you graduate, I wish to remind you that our country needs you more than ever before. South Africa needs your skills, innovation, knowledge, expertise, and creativity,” she said.

Three members of the current SRC were also among the graduates. They are the President, Njabulo Mwali (BSc Information Technology), Sports Affairs Officer, Ntokozo Thango (BA Sociology), and Student Development and Environmental Affairs Officer, Ntokozo Masiteng (BA Sociology).

 

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