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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

School of Medicine not closing
2009-10-22

There is no immediate threat that the University of the Free State’s (UFS) School of Medicine will be closing.

This was confirmed by Prof. Gert van Zyl, Head of the UFS’s School of Medicine and acting Dean of the Faculty of Health Science, following media reports that Prof. Andries Stulting has indicated in a meeting with other medical schools and parliamentary standing committee members that the School will have to close due to the serious problems in the health sector.

“This discussion should be seen in context. Prof. Stulting, in his capacity as acting Head of the School of Medicine, and on behalf of the School and the Faculty, sent a proactive warning to the Free State Health Department, the Member of the Executive Committee and the Premier of the Free State regarding the long-term consequences of the health crisis. This statement was not interpreted correctly. Everything that Prof. Stulting said has already been included in the position statement that the School released in May 2009. What is urgent, though, is that the problems that were identified at especially Pelonomi Hospital in May this year were still not addressed,” said Prof. Van Zyl.

According to Prof. Van Zyl, problems at Pelonomi Hospital include not enough beds, lack of funding for the health sector in the Free State and in some instances problems with filling vacant positions.

“Some of these problems have already been addressed by the Free State Department of Health. Our training platform includes not only Pelonomi Hospital, but also Universitas Hospital, National Hospital, the Free State Psychiatric Complex and several clinics in the Bloemfontein area. This means that there are other facilities available that function in order to provide appropriate training to undergraduate students. Therefore, training is not in immediate danger and the School will definitely not be closing,” he said.

“New first-year students will start their studies in 2010 and I can assure you that there will be adequate training opportunities to take in and train students. However, we do struggle with a bigger intake as requested by Government. I want to put Prof. Stulting’s remark in context: He referred to postgraduate students and therefore the specialists who are in training,” said Prof. Van Zyl.

According to Prof. Van Zyl the specialists in training is a problem that was discussed with the Free State Health Department – with specific reference to less time in operating theatres and the number of beds at Pelonomi Hospital. “We are of the opinion that, should the Department address this problem as a matter of urgency, there will be no long-term damage to the training of these specialists in training. These are the students that Prof. Stulting was referring to,” he said.

The School received more than 1 500 applications for undergraduate studies in 2010 – all of these applications met the minimum selection requirements for the 140 available places. “Our current undergraduate students are therefore not influenced and they will continue to receive the quality training for which the School is renowned,” he said.

Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-chancellor of the UFS, is aware of this and he satisfied himself as to the situation when he visited the hospitals in Bloemfontein on Friday, 9 October 2009. The national Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, was also informed of the School’s concerns when he visited the UFS in September 2009.

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

22 October 2009
 

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