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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

A real indaba it was
2010-09-07

Pictured from the left, are: Prof. Dennis Francis (Dean), Prof. Rita Niemann (Director: Postgraduate Studies and Research) and Prof. Rob Pattman (Keynote speaker: UKZN).

No expert panels! No rubrics! Only a fair measure of healthy anxiety that goes with public speaking!

These features describe the meeting that staff members from the Faculty of Education recently had at Indaba Lodge on the banks of the Modder River. The purpose of this get-together was to create a time and space where staff members could not only celebrate their own research efforts, but also acknowledge, support and validate one another’s work.

The day kicked off with the dean’s research vision for the faculty. Thereafter seven staff members doing their Ph.D.s were introduced. Their presentations were followed by inputs from the guest speaker, Prof. Rob Pattman from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). He congratulated the presenters on their cutting-edge research, their eloquence and the manner in which they managed to communicate complex matters in simple ways. Ideas he shared from his own research on social identities and critical agency (with a focus on gender and race) served to affirm the relevance of the topics presented by the Ph.D. candidates in transforming the education system as well as the South African society as a whole.

A festive lunch, in honour of retiring Prof. Johan van Staden, brought an affective dimension to the Indaba in the form of heart-felt goodbye messages from colleagues who had shared his academic life for more than 20 years.

After lunch five master’s students had the opportunity to share their research in the form of poster presentations. A lively interest among participants and critical, but constructive questions characterised this session. A potpourri session followed, comprising work in progress, completed surveys, research awards and innovative research methods.

The wrap-up by Prof. Dennis in no uncertain terms affirmed that researchers in the Faculty of Education not only crossed the Modder River, but also the proverbial Rubicon on 21 August. It was envisaged that henceforth:
- Supervision will take on a collaborative character.
- Soon a research forum for Ph.D. students and their supervisors will be established where these students and supervisors can start practising their agency.
- Instead of relying on outside experts who come and “tell” faculty staff members what to do, insiders should start building their own vibrant research-based practices by forming reading groups to discuss seminal works (e.g. Foucault and Freire) and research methodologies (e.g. Burke’s Pentad).

The Indaba was aptly concluded by one of the participants who, on behalf of all attendees, thanked and congratulated the dean on the initiative to give impetus to research. Analogous to the 2010 slogan, Feel it, it is here!, he said: “I feel so inspired and empowered, I can almost taste it!”
 

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