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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

Boyden Observatory turns 120
2009-05-13

 

At the celebration of the 120th year of existence of the UFS's Boyden Observatory are, from the left: Prof. Herman van Schalkwyk, Dean: Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the UFS, Prof. Driekie Hay, Vice-Rector: Academic Planning at the UFS, Mr Ian Heyns from AngloGold Ashanti and his wife, Cheryl, and Prof. François Retief, former rector of the UFS and patron of the Friends of Boyden.
Photo: Hannes Pieterse

The Boyden Observatory, one of the oldest observatories in the Southern Hemisphere and a prominent beacon in Bloemfontein, recently celebrated its 120th year of existence.

This milestone was celebrated by staff, students, other dignitaries of the University of the Free State (UFS) and special guests at the observatory last week.

“The observatory provides the Free State with a unique scientific, educational and tourist facility. No other city in South Africa, and few in the world, has a public observatory with telescopes the size and quality of those at Boyden,” said Prof. Herman van Schalkwyk, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the UFS.

The observatory, boasting the third-largest optical telescope in South Africa, has a long and illustrious history. It was established on a temporary site on Mount Harvard near the small town of Chosica, Peru in 1889. Later it was moved to Arequipa in Peru where important astronomical observations were made from 1891 to 1926. “However, due to unstable weather patterns and observing conditions, it was decided to move the Boyden Station to another site somewhere else in the Southern Hemisphere, maybe South Africa,” said Prof. Van Schalkwyk.

South Africa's excellent climatic conditions were fairly well known and in 1927 the instruments were shipped and the Boyden Station was set up next to Maselspoort near Bloemfontein. Observations began in September 1927 and in 1933 the new site was officially completed, including the 60 inch (1.5 m) telescope, which was then the largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. This telescope was recently refurbished to a modern research instrument.

The observatory has various other telescopes and one of them, the 13" refractor telescope, which was sent to Arequipa in 1891 and later to Bloemfontein, is still in an excellent condition. Another important telescope is the Watcher Robotic Telescope of the University College Dublin, which conducts many successful observations of gamma ray bursts.

“In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the Boyden Observatory contributed considerably to our understanding of the secrets of the universe at large. The period luminosity relationship of the Cepheid variable stars was, for example, discovered from observations obtained at Boyden. This relationship is one of the cornerstones of modern astrophysics. It is currently used to make estimates of the size and age of the universe from observations of the Hubble Space Telescope,” said Prof. Van Schalkwyk.

“The Boyden Observatory contributed to the university’s astrophysics research group being able to produce the first M.Sc. degrees associated with the National Space Science Programme (NASSAP) in the country and the Boyden Science Centre plays an important role in science and technology awareness of learners, teachers and the general public,” said Prof. Van Schalkwyk.

The Boyden Science Centre has also formed strong relationships with various institutions, including the South African Agency for the Advancement of Science and Technology (SAASTA) and the Department of Science and Technology. The centre has already conducted many different projects for the Department of Science and Technology, including National Science Week projects, as well as National Astronomy Month projects. It also serves as one of the hosts of SAASTA’s annual Astronomy Quiz.

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

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