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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 appoints Jansen as rector
2009-03-15

The Council of the University of the Free State (UFS) is pleased to announce that it has agreed to offer the post of Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the UFS to internationally renowned academic Prof. Jonathan Jansen, making him the first black Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the institution in its 105-year history.

This decision was taken by an overwhelming majority, signalling the commitment of the UFS to continue as a world-class university that will at the same time pursue the objective of transformation in the interests of the entire university community.

Announcing the decision today (Friday, 13 March 2009), the Chairperson of the UFS Council Judge Faan Hancke said the UFS was privileged to have had candidates of the highest calibre apply for the position. An international executive search agency specialising in academic appointments had assisted the UFS Council in its search for top quality candidates.

“This has been a truly vibrant, transparent and participatory selection process, which has resulted in our institution being able to make this historic appointment,” said Judge Hancke.

“I appeal to the entire UFS community, staff, students and alumni to support the new Rector and Vice-Chancellor in his endeavour to lead this institution to greater heights. This is an important moment in the life our institution. We should celebrate this achievement as a united university community,” Judge Hancke said.

“As a council we are now unanimously behind Prof. Jansen and want to assure him of our full support,” Judge Hancke said.

In response to his appointment, Prof. Jansen said it was a great privilege and that he would really do his utmost best to be of service to the UFS.

In his statement of intent which was submitted earlier as part of his application for the post, Prof. Jansen indicated that if appointed he “would be deeply honoured to lead one of South Africa’s great universities”.

“The University of the Free State has gained a national reputation for three things: [1] its turnaround strategy in terms of financial stability in a context where external funding has been uncertain; [2] its research strategy which has seen a steady and impressive growth in research outputs; and [3] its managerial decisiveness in the wake of the Reitz incident,” Prof. Jansen said.

Regarding the challenges facing the UFS, Prof. Jansen said in his statement of intent: “The UFS has to find a way of integrating classroom life while at the same time ensuring the promotion of Afrikaans, an important cultural trust of the institution, as well as Sesotho and other indigenous languages. It has to bring academic staff, administrative staff, workers, students, as well as the parent community behind a compelling vision of transformation that works in the interest of all members of the university community. And it has to rebuild trust and confidence among students and staff in the mission of the university.”

Prof. Jansen is a recent Fulbright Scholar to Stanford University (2007-2008), former Dean of Education at the University of Pretoria (2001-2007), and Honorary Doctor of Education from the University of Edinburgh. He is a former high school Biology teacher and achieved his undergraduate education at the University of the Western Cape (BSc), his teaching credentials at UNISA (HED, BEd) and his postgraduate education in the USA (MS, Cornell; PhD, Stanford).

He is also Honorary Professor of Education at the University of the Witwatersrand and Visiting Fellow at the National Research Foundation.

His most recent books are Knowledge in the Blood (2009, Stanford University Press) and his co-authored Diversity High: Class, Color, Character and Culture in a South African High School (2008, University Press of America). In these and related works, he examines how education leaders balance the dual imperatives of reparation and reconciliation in their leadership practice.

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 March 2009
 

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