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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

HEDSA discusses better services for students with disabilities
2010-09-30

At the gala dinner were, from the left: Anlia Pretorius, Chairperson of HEDSA and Head of the Disability Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand; Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training; Ms Hetsie Veitch, Head of the Unit for Students with Disabilities at the UFS; and Prof. Niel Viljoen, Vice-Rector: Operations at the UFS.
Photo: Leonie Bolleurs

The first ever General Meeting of the Higher Education Disability Services Association (HEDSA) was held on the Main Campus of the University of the Free State (UFS) in Bloemfontein this week. HEDSA is a newly constituted body that represents the Disability Units from the various universities across the country.

The UFS is a member of HEDSA, which aims to work together to promote equal opportunities for students with disabilities in terms of access, participation and success in Higher Education.

The General Meeting forms part of the launching symposium with the theme: New Beginnings and New Directions. The symposium, attended by 15 higher education institutions in South Africa, served as a platform to explore innovative approaches to assist in improving services for students with disabilities.

Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, was one of the speakers at the gala dinner of this prestigious event. He said that there is still a lot of work to do to overcome discrimination against students as well as staff members with disabilities at higher education institutions. Minister Nzimande quoted from the Soudien report, a government-commissioned report that brought to light discrimination – especially racism and sexism – still endemic at South African universities. “Victims, in this instance referring to students and staff with disabilities, are denied the opportunity – either through a lack of access to opportunities or due to outright discrimination – to realise their full potential. In the process, the country is robbed of valuable but untapped human resources. Higher education institutions cause incalculable damage to South African society by failing to deal boldly with these issues. Where institutions have indeed taken action, the benefits to individuals, to the different social groups in the country, as well as to the institutions themselves, have been major.”

He stated that he believed that HEDSA as well as the symposium could play a vital role that would assist in this process.

Ms Hetsie Veitch, Head of the Unit for Students with Disabilities at the UFS, was elected as treasurer of this body for the following two years. Johnny Mokoka will represent the UFS in HEDSA’s National Student Organisation for Students with Disabilities that was established during the symposium this week.

Media Release
Issued by: Leonie Bolleurs
Strategic Communication
Tel: 051 401 2707
Sel: 0836455853
Email: bolleursl@ufs.ac.za  
30 September 2010

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