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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

Exciting Science School of Excellence for Grade 11 learners presented
2009-05-21

The Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS) is presenting a Science School of Excellence for top achievers in Grade 11 from 6-9 July 2009. This will take place on the Main Campus in Bloemfontein.

Four exciting days are planned during which Grade 11 learners will participate in challenging extra-curricular exercises as well as laboratory and research activities. All classes will be presented in English and Afrikaans.

A maximum of 80 learners can be accommodated and selection will take place on the basis of first come, first accepted. An application fee of R50,00 per learner is payable.

The closing date for applications is 29 May 2009. The successful candidate will be notified telephonically. A further registration fee of R200,00 is payable by the successful learners. Learners are responsible for their own transport and accommodation. The registration fee includes all meals, lectures and activities.

In order to qualify for the UFS Science School, learners had to achieve an average of 80% [level 7] during the 2008 Grade 10 final examinations. They also had to obtain a minimum of 80% [level 7] in Mathematics and Physical or Life Sciences during the same examination. Learners who are interested in the Department of Computer Sciences and Informatics will also need Grade 10 CAT at level 7. A certified copy of the learner’s school report must accompany the application form.

“Our vision is to make the Faculty the preferred choice in central South-Africa for those who wish to pursue their studies in the natural and agricultural sciences,” said Prof. Neil Heideman, Vice-Dean of the faculty.

For application forms and enquiries, please contact the coordinator, Mr Johan Kruger, at 051 401 3199.

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 May 2009

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