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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

Government supports the UFS's transformation push
2009-09-04

The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande (pictured), has lauded the University of the Free State (UFS) for the progress it has made in increasing access for black students.

However, the minister also acknowledged that the UFS has failed in some respects to make important changes.

“The continued racial segregation of the hostels is something that is unacceptable 15 years after the introduction of a democratic order and has no doubt contributed to the kinds of attitudes that led to the notorious incident at the Reitz Hostel last year,” he said.

Dr Nzimande was delivering the JN Boshoff Commemorative Lecture on the Main Campus in Bloemfontein last night.

He said the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the UFS, Prof Jonathan Jansen, has assured him that he will speed up this issue of residence integration and that he was confident he will do so successfully with the support of the overwhelming majority of the university community.

“He has my support in his new role and he will succeed in taking the university forward decisively along the path towards greater academic excellence and to serving its students and staff, the Free State province and South Africa as a whole, including its poorest and most disadvantaged citizens,” he said.

He said the UFS is an important national asset and “not an asset for some to the exclusion of others”.

“We will play our part as the Department of Higher Education and Training to support you in pursuing transformation, but we won’t keep quiet when we see that there are things that are developing that are actually undermining the realization of the UFS as a national asset,” he said.

Despite the fact that all our universities, he said, have policies in place to combat racism and discrimination, the Soudien Report shows that there is a disconnection between policy and actual discriminatory practice at universities.

“This is a serious problem because this disjuncture is not only because of the actions of maverick individuals on the ground, but includes the universities’ leadership, including even University Councils which are guilty of making policy in order to comply with legislation but expect that policy to be ignored in practice,” he said.

The Soudien Report is a Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions commissioned by the Department of Education last year.

Dr Nzimande also raised the fact that universities have neglected the Further Education and Training (FET) college sector in terms of research and teaching.

“There is not enough research by the universities on the FET college sector and yet this is the sector that we are prioritizing to absorb many of our young people who can’t make it to universities,” he said.

“We want to try and fight against this notion that in order to proceed in life university is the only place. We want to turn these FET colleges into colleges of choice and universities must help us, not only to research them but also to train FET colleges lecturers.”

He also announced that he will be calling a meeting of all the chairpersons of the Institutional Forums of the universities later this month as he feels that the role and status of these forums have been “eroded”.

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  
04 September 2009
 

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