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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 academics present papers at major conference
2009-07-23

 
Pictured from the left are: Prof Neethling, Prof Edna van Harte (Dean of the Faculty of Military Science, Stellenbosch University), Dr Thomas Mandrup (from the Royal Danish Defence College and co-organiser of the conference), and Prof Heidi Hudson.
Photo: Supplied


Prof Theo Neethling from the Department of Political Science was recently invited to address a conference on the theoretical basis for states’ use of military instruments of force and scholarly progress in the understanding of armed conflict in Africa held at Stellenbosch University (SU) on 11 and 12 June 2009. This conference, themed Strategic Theory and Contemporary Africa Conflicts, was presented by the Faculty of Military Science of SU in collaboration with the Faculty of Military and Strategic Studies of the Royal Danish Defence College in Copenhagen. The conference was premised on the point that the way in which states choose to become involved in, orchestrate or oppose armed conflicts in terms of peace intervention action, normally originates from theoretical thinking well-grounded in a national strategy. This was the first conference in South Africa that focused on the nature of such a national strategy, but also on how the incidence of recent armed conflicts in Africa could be explained in terms of this theoretical thinking. In view of this Prof Neethling’s paper was titled, “UN peacekeeping operations in Africa: Reflections on developments, trends and the way forward”. His paper focused on recent and current UN peacekeeping operations with special reference to multinational challenges in the African context.


Prof. Heidi Hudson from the Centre for African Studies also attended the conference in Stellenbosch on Strategic Theory and Contemporary Africa Conflicts. In addition she was invited to present a paper at the Peacekeeping Africa 2009 conference held on 24 and 25 June 2009 at Gallagher Estate, Midrand. The event brings together individuals who are experts in defence, peacekeeping, policing, foreign service and other government bodies to share knowledge and to discuss the latest developments. This year’s conference was attended by more than 100 experts from all over Africa, with strong representation from the UN and the International Red Cross. Prof. Hudson’s paper was entitled “Peacebuilding through a gender lens”. Her presentation examined lessons learnt with regard to implementation of a gender perspective in Côte d’Ivoire and Rwanda. These case studies point towards an empirical link between women’s inclusion in peace processes and the quality of peace finally achieved. Prof. Hudson warned that inattention to the differential needs of both women and men during conflict and in the post-conflict reconstruction phase may perpetuate the violence discourses which sustained the conflict in the first place.

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