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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 teams up with Department of Agriculture and donates latest farming technology to Oppermans

Attending the recent launch of the latest technology that measures the salinity of soil – the EM38 system – during an information day held in Jacobsdal were, from the left, back: Mr Robert Dlomo, a farmer from Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal, Prof. Leon van Rensburg, Department of Soil, Crop and Climate Sciences at the UFS, Mr Sugar Ramakarane, head of the Department of Agriculture in the Free State, Dr Motseki Hlatshwayo, national Department of Agriculture, and Prof. Herman van Schalkwyk, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the UFS; front: Mr Robert Smith and Mr Fagan Scheepers from Oppermansgronde, who will be working with the EM38 system in the area.
Photo: Landbouweekblad
UFS teams up with Department of Agriculture and donates latest farming technology to Oppermans

Emerging and commercial farmers of the Oppermans Community in the Northern Cape will now be able to monitor the salinity levels on their farms effectively for the first time.

This is as a result of a donation of the latest technology that measures the salinity of soil – the EM38 system – which the University of the Free State (UFS) is donating to the community.

The unique project was launched by the Department of Soil, Crop and Climate Sciences at the UFS and the Department of Agriculture in the Free State during an information day held at Jacobsdal recently.

The day was attended by members of the Oppermans Community and representatives of the UFS as well as the Department of Agriculture. Mr Sugar Ramakarane, Head of the Department of Agriculture in the Free State, did the welcoming and several academics from the UFS held discussions about various topics related to the salinity levels in soil.

Since the establishment of the Oppermans Community emerging farmers are now for the first time able to accurately monitor the salinity levels on their farms as well as that of irrigation schemes of commercial farms in the area.

“In a region such as the Northern Cape it is very important that the salinity level of soil is monitored properly. As water is administered to crops, salts accumulate in the soil because the roots leave most of the salts in the soil when it transpires. When the salinity of soil increases, the osmotic potential thereof can also increase, which can seriously damage the water intake of crops and can create loss in yield and income,” said Prof. Leon van Rensburg from the Department of Soil, Crop and Climate Sciences at the UFS and leader of the Oppermans Project.

To assist the farming community of Oppermans to apply precision farming and to measure the salinity level of soil more accurately the latest technology that measures salinity in soil – the EM38 – will be donated to the community. Although the system is used throughout the world, the UFS is the only tertiary institution in the country that owns the latest version of this system.

“We are also training two persons from the Oppermans Community as technicians that will monitor the use of the system. The advantage of the donation of the system for the university is that we can gather data that can be used for research purposes by our Master’s and Doctoral students. We also want to see if water-table heights can be measured with this system,” said Prof. Van Rensburg.

According to him the system has several advantages for the community’s emerging farmers. “For the first time the salinity level of soil can now be measured accurately, salt maps can be drawn up, we can advise farmers about the corrections that need to be made and salinity management plans can be compiled,” he said.

The system is very accurate as it takes measurements every 200 mm while it is pulled by a four-wheel motorbike. The readings provide the distribution of salts up to a soil depth of 1 500 mm. “In the past the measuring of salinity levels was time-consuming and the cost thereof was R90 for one sample. The new system is more cost-effective,” stated Prof. Van Rensburg.

The instruments will be handed over to the African Spirit Group of the Oppermans Community, who will then become the owners. The service to farmers will then be managed by an operational group consisting of people from the Oppermans Community, a postgraduate student who can compile salinity maps and Prof. Van Rensburg, who will act as project leader and advisor.

The system will also be made available to farmers at the Riet River and Vaalharts Schemes.

Media Release
Issued by: Lacea Loader
Assistant Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2584
Cell: 083 645 2454
9 March 2009

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