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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

Science school of excellence for Grade 11 learners launched
2009-04-21

 
At the launch of the Science School of Excellence were, from the left: Prof. Neil Heideman, Vice-Dean: Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the UFS, Mr John Davids, General Manager, Volksblad, Ms Lorraine Botha, Chief Professional Officer, Centre for Education Development at the UFS, and Rev Kiepie Jaftha, Chief Director: Community Service at the UFS.
Photo: Dalene Harris

Science school of excellence for Grade 11 learners launched

The Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS) has launched a project to give top Grade 11 learners an idea of what the faculty has to offer by giving them a ‘university-type’ experience.

The Science School of Excellence Project was launched last week during a function where the university’s schools support programmes were introduced to the management and members of staff.

The project is aimed at Grade 11 learners in the Free State who obtained an overall average of 80% in the 2008 Grade 10 final examinations. This includes a minimum score of 80% (Level 7) in Mathematics and a minimum score of 80% (Level 7) in Physical or Life Science during the same examination. It will be presented on the Main Campus in Bloemfontein from 6-9 July 2009. The closing date for applications is 8 May 2009.

“By presenting this project we want to stimulate learners’ interest in the natural and agricultural sciences, give them an idea of what we have to offer, raise their interest to come and study at the UFS and let them know that we cherish them as role models in their schools and as academic leaders of the future,” said Prof. Neil Heideman, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the UFS.

According to Prof. Heideman the Science School of Excellence will take on the form of small lab and field projects which the learners will carry out under the supervision of staff and postgraduate students. An application fee of R50 per learner must be paid by the school and a maximum of 80 learners can be accommodated. The 80 learners will be selected on a first come, first served basis and a registration fee of R200 per learner has to be paid after they have received notice that they have been accepted. Letters in this regard have been sent to principals of secondary schools in the Free State. “We will also include 10 learners from disadvantaged rural schools, who will be fully sponsored,” said Prof. Heideman.

“Fourteen of our departments will be presenting programmes, during which learners will engage in challenging exercises that will be ‘out of school’ experiences involving laboratory experiments and research activities typical of our faculty,” said Prof. Heideman.

Five other schools support programmes of the UFS were also presented during last week’s launch function. They were the Itjhoriseng Project, which is a skills development course in Mathematics and Physical Sciences for teachers in the Further Education phase; the Science for the Future Project that aims to encourage more learners to enter into science-related studies and careers; the Qwaqwa School Support Programme that aims to improve the year-end results of Grade 12 learners and a project by the South African Foundation for Economic and Financial Education (SAFEFE) and the National Council of Economic Education (NCEE),which aims to improve the economic and financial literacy of teachers.

“The university’s role in the development of teachers and learners in various subject fields has increased tremendously over the past couple of years. Learners are our students of the future. As a university we must do as much as we can to equip them and their teachers with the necessary skills to better themselves,” said Rev. Kiepie Jaftha, Chief Director: Community Service at the UFS at the launch of the Science Schools for Excellence Project.

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  
20 April 2009

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