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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

Gauteng business community experiences UFS
2010-09-23

Prof. Matie Hoffman from the Department of Physics of the UFS, presenting at the Boyden Observatory to a group of business executives from Gauteng, during their recent visit to the university.
Photo: Gerhard Louw

The University of the Free State’s (UFS) Corporate Liaison Office recently hosted a group of eleven business men and women from the private sector in Gauteng on its Main Campus in Bloemfontein. The purpose of the campus visits, which are held two to three times a year, is to give representatives from the corporate sector the opportunity to get to know the UFS first-hand and to help build the brand of the university as a national asset.

During their visit the group of business men and women, amongst others, met with faculty members, they enjoyed a networking session with UFS staff at the Oliewenhuis Art Museum, visited the Unit for Students with Disabilities as well as the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health.

The day ended at the Boyden Observatory where a feedback session was facilitated by Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor, and Prof. Ezekiel Moraka, Vice-Rector: External Relations. After this opportunity where the visitors discussed their experience of the UFS, the day came to an end with a presentation on: The African skies: Stories and science by a Ph.D. candidate from the Department of Physics, Mr Bosco Oruru. One of the highlights of the evening included a sighting of the Hubble Telescope in the sky over Bloemfontein and observing the moon and Venus through one of the Boyden telescopes.

The visitors left with new insights and a great appreciation for the contribution of the UFS to education, research and community service in South Africa.

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