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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

Teachers should deal with diversity in education - Prof. Francis
2010-10-08

At the occasion were, from the left: Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS); Prof. Francis; and Prof. Driekie Hay, Vice-Rector: Teaching and Learning at the UFS.
Photo: Jaco van der Merwe

Prof. Dennis Francis, the Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of the Free State (UFS), recently delivered his inaugural lecture on Troubling Diversity in South African Education on the Main Campus in Bloemfontein.

He urged teachers to be open to what “diversity” might mean in a particular context and how diversity relates to either inclusion or exclusion.

“An approach that promotes the inclusion of all must be based on an understanding of how exclusion operates in ways that may have typical patterns of oppression, but differ in the specific ways that exclusion is expressed and becomes normalised in that context,” he said.

“The good teacher thus seeks to understand how these forms of exclusion may develop in the school’s context and respond through taking thoughtful action to challenge them. It may require creating a climate that enables the silent to speak and recognising that not all groups communicate in exactly the same ways.”

He said teachers also had to affirm the experiential base of learners and students. He said there was an assumption that students would be more effective practitioners if their own experience were validated and explored.

“It is crucial that the students’ own history is treated as valuable and is a critical part of the data that are reflected,” he said. “Equally important is that such stories and similar activities are intentionally processed to enable students to make the connections between personal experience and relevant theory.”

He also urged them to challenge the ways in which knowledge had been framed through oppression.

“Schools are often characterised by messages that draw on one or another form of oppression. Thus, expectations are subtly or in some cases unsubtly communicated, e.g. that girls are not good at physics, or that, while white learners are strong in abstract thought, African learners have untapped creativity, and so on,” he continued.

“For someone to integrate into their role as educators a commitment against oppression means confronting obstacles that one may previously have shied away from, such as challenging authority, naming privilege, emphasising the power relations that exist between social groups, listening to people one has previously ignored, and risking being seen as deviant, troublesome or unpopular.”

Furthermore, Prof. Francis said dealing with diversity in education was always affectively loaded for both students and teachers. He said in South Africa one injunction from educators was to be “sensitive” and thus avoid risking engagement with the contentious issues around imbalances of power.

“If both students and teachers are to confront issues of oppression and power in any meaningful way, we need to design more purposely for the difficulties they will encounter, for example, creating a classroom environment that promotes safety and trust so that all students are able to confront and deal with prejudice and discrimination. Classroom environments will need to balance the affective and cognitive in addressing issues of diversity and social justice,” he added.

He also said that teachers should recognise the need to complement changing attitudes with attempts to change the structural aspects of oppressions.

“To prevent superficial commitments to change, it is important for students to explore barriers that prevent them from confronting oppressive attitudes and behaviours. In this way students are able to learn and see the structural aspects of oppression,” he said.

“Equally important, however, is to get students to examine the benefits associated with challenging oppression. A fair amount of time must therefore be spent on developing strategies with students which they will be able to use practically in challenging oppression.”

He also advised educators to affirm the capacity of staff and learners to act and learn in ways that do not replicate patterns of oppression.

“Many South African schools have survived both the harsh repression of apartheid and the continuing legacy of oppression of various kinds. Despite that, we are often as educators made aware of the ways in which young people in particular affirm themselves and each other in creative and confident ways,” he concluded.

Media Release
Issued by: Lacea Loader
Director: Strategic Communication (acg)
Tel: 051 401 2584
Cell: 083 645 2454
E-mail: loaderl@ufs.ac.za  
7 October 2010
 

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