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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

Distinguished academic bids farewell to UFS
2008-09-05

 
Prof Nel and his wife, Olivia

The Director of the Centre for Africa Studies (CAS) at the University of the Free State (UFS), Prof Phillip Nel, is leaving the University after 33 years of service.

Prof Nel has decided to scale down his involvement with the UFS and CAS to spend more time with his wife, Olivia, and his family and doing more research.

“There comes a time that one must go and this is it for me, but from time to time I wonder whether I have done all that I was meant to do”, said Prof Nel. “I strongly believe that no one is irreplaceable and I know that the Centre for Africa Studies is in good hands.”

His successor, Prof Anwar Osman, an internationally renowned academic himself, assumed the directorship of CAS on 1 September 2008.

“My intention is to build on the groundwork done thus far and to broaden the teaching and research base of the Centre to include the natural sciences as well, truly making CAS a beacon for multidisciplinary study”, said Prof Osman.

“The future success of this centre will be a lasting testament to Prof Nel’s visionary leadership.”

Although he will be leaving the ranks of the full-time employed at the UFS, Prof Nel will still be involved with CAS’s research programme and still has a number of active research projects, such as the SANPAD Project, entitled Communities in Communion, which involves the dynamics of sacred sites and individual and community cultural and spiritual identity construction.

He launched CAS in 2007 to promote a stronger focus on African issues in all activities at the UFS and to fulfil an academic role by linking the realities of Africa to education, research and community service programmes.

Media Release
Issued by: Mangaliso Radebe
Assistant Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2828
Cell: 078 460 3320
E-mail: radebemt.stg@ufs.ac.za
4 September 2008
 

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