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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

Year-long programme to celebrate the story of life and survival
2009-02-13

 
At the launch of the UFS's year-long programme to celebrate the story of life and survival were, from the left: Prof. Schalk Louw, Department of Zoology and Entomology, Prof. Jo van As, Department of Zoology and Entomology, Prof. Maitland Seaman, Centre for Environmental Management, and Prof. Matie Hoffman, Department of Physics. All four are associated with the UFS.
Photo: Hannes Pieterse

A year-long programme to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his scientifically important book “The Origin of Species” was launched yesterday (the birth date of Darwin) by the University of the Free State (UFS) on its Main Campus in Bloemfontein.

The UFS is the only university in the country that is presenting such an extensive programme on life and survival. Yesterday’s launch programme entailed a portrayal of the life of Darwin and a presentation on what nature tells us about cosmic history. It was the start of a year-long lecture programme in which various departments at the UFS will take part.

“The lecture programme, called “The story of life and survival”, forms a cycle of the progress of man and does not only focus on Darwin. The programme aims to portray the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution on a wide range of disciplines. We see this as a good opportunity to promote science in its broadest context,” says Prof. Jo Van As, head of the Department of Zoology and Entomology at the UFS.

The lecture programme will include topics such as the geological evolution of our planet, extinction, Darwinian agriculture, the road to civilisation, the proliferation of technology and communication, human demography and the human impact on the environment. It will be concluded in February 2010 with a lecture on the future of evolution.

The programme is spearheaded by the Department of Zoology and Entomology at the UFS, in conjunction with the National Museum and the Central University of Technology.

“Today evolution is no longer considered to be a theory and is widely accepted by most serious scientists as the process responsible for the diversity of life on our planet,” says Prof. Van As.

Complete programme:

26 February 2009: The geological evolution of our planet
13 March 2009: Origin of life, prokaryotes and eukaryotes
24 March 2009: Extinction
16 April 2009: Evolution and biodiversity of plants
30 April 2009: Evolution and biodiversity of animals
14 May 2009: The mechanisms of evolution: Heredity and Natural Selection
28 May 2009: Origin of humankind
4 June 2009: Darwinian agriculture
30 July 2009: Road to civilisation
6 August 2009: Human demography
20 August 2009: Proliferation of technology and communication
10 September 2009: Human impact: On the environment
8 October 2009: Human impact: Resistance, ectoparasites, HIV/Aids, antibiotics
22 October 2009: How to care for the world
12 February 2009: The future of evolution

Media Release
Issued by: Lacea Loader
Assistant Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2584
Cell: 083 645 2454
E-mail: loaderl.stg@ufs.ac.za
13 February 2009

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