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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

UFS celebrates Africa Month
2017-05-24

 Description: ' Africa Month Tags: UFS celebrates Africa Month

Most of the international students at the UFS come from
the Southern African Development Community (SADC)
and other countries in Africa.

Photo: iStock

“Africa Month provides an opportunity
to every student and staff member to
commemorate African unity and celebrate
our rich cultural heritage, diversity,
energy and social dynamism.”

The University of the Free State (UFS) celebrates Africa Month to commemorate African unity and praise cultural heritage, as well as to take ownership of the future of the continent. According to Prof Heidi Hudson, Director of the Centre for Africa Studies, these are reasons to take part in the festivities.

Formation of Organisation of African Unity

Africa Day is the day on which Africa observes the creation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on 25 May 1963. A total of 32 independent African states attended the formation.

The OAU’s aims were to promote unity and solidarity of the African states and act as a collective voice for the continent, in order to secure Africa’s long-term economic and political future and to rid it of remaining forms of colonialism. The OAU later gave birth to the African Union, which formally replaced the OAU in July 2002.

Prof Hudson says celebrating Africa Month forms part of her centre’s institutional mandate to promote an African focus in research, teaching, as well as public debate.

“Africa Month provides an opportunity to every student and staff member to commemorate African unity and celebrate our rich cultural heritage, diversity, energy and social dynamism. Secondly, by participating we all begin to take ownership of our future on this continent.”

She adds that Africa month provides a platform for reflecting on past experiences and achievements, as well as to critically assess the failures, challenges and the lessons learnt for the sake of a better future for the continent’s people.

Working relations across the continent

The UFS has working relations with universities, embassies and consulates in African countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, and Tunisia.

Five cooperation agreements exist – they are with the Botho University (Botswana), Greater Zimbabwe University, Universidad Eduardo Mondlane (Mozambique), Trinity Theological Seminary Ghana, and Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary.

According to Kanego Mokgosi, Senior Officer at Internationalisation, there are also working relations between the university and The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, Swedish International Development Agency and The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. All of these focus on research development in Africa.

Most of the international students at the UFS come from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the continent. It hosts 1393 students from SADC countries.

“The UFS employs SADC protocol guidelines which, among others, enjoin SADC universities to admit at least 5% of their student population from the SADC region,” says Mokgosi.

Memorial Lecture by Dr Zeleza

On 24 May 2017 the Centre for Africa Studies hosted an Africa Day Memorial Lecture by Dr Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, the Vice Chancellor (President) of the United States International University Africa, Nairobi, Kenya.

The UFS library, in collaboration with the Department of English and the Office of International Affairs, also celebrated Africa Day on 25 May 2017. They hosted a conversation on the Land Debate in South Africa, together with the launch of a book titled White Narratives: The depiction of Post-2000 Land Invasions in Zimbabwe by Prof Irikidzayi Manase. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of English.

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