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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

Physics researchers at the UFS receive awards from the NSTF
2009-05-28

 
 Dr Martin Ntwaeaborwa and Prof. Hendrik Swart from the Department of Physics at the University of the Free State.
Yesterday evening two researchers from the Department of Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS) received prestigious awards from the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) during its eleventh gala-award ceremony. The event was held at the Emperors Palace in Johannesburg.

Prof. Hendrik Swart, Head of the Department of Physics, was the recipient of the award for research capacity development over the last five to ten years. He received the award for his significant contribution towards the development of students in niche areas of nanophysics. The award, sponsored by Eskom, includes a prize of R100 000 which will be used for research purposes.

Prof. Swart is actively involved in the research of phosphor material, concentrating on the effectiveness of nanophosphor.

Dr Martin Ntwaeaborwa, senior lecturer in the Department of Physics was the recipient of the T.W. Kambule National Research Foundation (NRF) award in Category J as distinguished young black male researcher over the last two to five years. He received the award for his contribution to the understanding and harnessing of light emitting nanomaterials for application in light emitting devices. The awarded includes R100 000 prize money towards Dr Ntwaeaborwa’s research.

Dr Ntwaeaborwa is an expert in luminescent nanomaterials.

A first-year student of Dr Ntwaeaborwa, Thabo Ngobeni also received a Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (THRIP) bursary at the gala event.

The NSTF awards give recognition to the outstanding contributions of individuals and groups to science, engineering and technology. This includes all practicing scientists, engineers and technologists across the system of innovation, including, for example, teachers and students in mathematics, science and technology. The NSTF represents government, science councils, professional bodies, higher education, business and civil society.

Altogether 13 individuals and corporate organisations or institutions were presented with the NSTF Awards trophy by the Minister of Science and Technology, Ms Naledi Pandor.

Media Release
Issued by: Mangaliso Radebe
Assistant Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2828
Cell: 078 460 3320
E-mail: radebemt.stg@ufs.ac.za  
27 May 2009

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