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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

The best black and white learners must come and study here
2009-09-17

 
At the meeting, arranged by the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, were from the left: Mr Tshdiso Makoelle, Clocolan High School; Mr Braam van Wyk, St Michael's School in Bloemfontein; Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS); Mr Izak Coetzee, Dr Blok Secondary School in Bloemfontein and Mr Okkie Botha, Witteberg High School in Bethlehem.
Photo: Stephen Collett
 “I want to make this university one of the best universities in the country and in the world. For this I will need the support of principals and teachers.” These were the words of Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS) during a recent meeting with school principals held on the Main Campus in Bloemfontein, which was arranged by the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences.

“I want the best black and white learners to come and study here and therefore I am going to visit schools in the region to find out how we can attract the best learners,” he said.
The most important influence on learners is their teachers and principal. “This why I need the support of teachers and principals to guide their learners to come and study here,” said Prof. Jansen.

Prof. Jansen said that it was of no use to work with Grade 11 and 12 learners only as it was mostly too late to change their minds. He wants to work with Grade 10 learners and make them excited about university life so that they will know what the UFS can offer them. He will also visit poor and rural schools and tell them about the UFS.

“When a Kovsie graduate walks down the street something must distinguish him/her from other graduates. Our graduates must be able to work anywhere in the world,” he said.

“Students must have the ability to live with other people and to be comfortable around people who look and speak differently than them. I want our students to be multi-lingual and to be comfortable around other students and people in terms of religion, race, language, etc. Students who do not have this added value will not be successful in the market,” he said.

Media Release
Issued by: Lacea Loader
Deputy Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2584
Cell: 083 645 2454
E-mail: loaderl.stg@ufs.ac.za  
16 September 2009

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