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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

State-of-the-art physics equipment and investment in students result in academic success
2017-09-26

Description: State-of-the-art physics equipment 1 Tags: State-of-the-art physics equipment 1 

At the recent nanotechnology facility tour at the UFS,
were, from the left, Dr Mthuthuzeli Zamxaka, SAASTA;
Prof Hendrik Swart, Sarchi Chair in the Department of Physics;
and Xolani Makhoba, Department of Science and Technology.
Photo: Leonie Bolleurs

Nanoscience, which is revealing new properties of very small arrangements of atoms, called nanoparticles, is opening a new world of possibilities. The Department of Physics at the University of the Free State is undertaking fundamental research with potential commercial applications. Its equipment and expertise is giving solid state physics research the edge in South Africa.

The UFS team of researchers and students are passionate about studying planets and atoms, all under one roof. Recently, the department, in collaboration with the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), hosted a nanotechnology facility tour to give the public, learners and the media the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the science of nanotechnology, its origins, potential applications and risks.

Successes of the department
According to Prof Hendrik Swart, Senior Professor in the Department of Physics, the increase in resources since 2008 is playing a big role in the success rate of its research outputs. The Sarchi Chair awarded to Prof Swart in 2012 (bringing with it funding for equipment and bursaries) also contributed to the successes in the department.

The UFS Directorate Research Development also availed funding that was used for bursaries. These bursaries made it possible for the department to appoint 10 post-doctoral fellows, not one of them originally from South Africa.

The investment in people and equipment resulted in researchers and students publishing some 80 articles in 2016. Their work was also cited more than 900 times by other researchers in that year.

Another highlight in terms of the department’s growth in the past 10 years is the new wing of the Physics Building. Physics at the UFS is the only place in sub-Saharan Africa where state-of-the art equipment is found under one roof.

Description: State-of-the-art physics equipment 2  Tags: State-of-the-art physics equipment 2  

Antonie Fourie, Junior Lecturer in the UFS Department of
Physics, explained to a group of delegates and
members of the media the workings of an electron beam
evaporation system.
Photo: Leonie Bolleurs

Application of research
The department is a unique research facility with equipment that includes the X-ray Photoelectron Spectrometer (for the study of atoms), the Scanning Auger Microscope, as well as the Ion Time-of-Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer (revealing the chemical bonds in a sample, and drawing maps of the positions of atoms).

One of the areas on which the department is focusing its research, is phosphors. Researchers are exploring light emitting diodes (LEDs) which use less energy, are brighter and provide a wider viewing field. They are also looking into LED displays (LCDs) which are used in flat screens – the phosphors create the different colours and backlighting.

The research on solar cells reveals that phosphors can increase their efficiency by increasing the range of light frequencies which can be converted into electricity. Glow-in-the-dark coatings absorb light in the day and emit it later so cells can charge at night. As glow-in-the-dark phosphors become cheaper and more effective, they can be used as a lighting substitute on the walls of houses, street numbers and stop signs.

Video production of the Department of Physics research and equipment

 

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