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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

Prof. Iain Benson delivers inaugural lecture in UFS's Faculty of Law
2010-10-27

Prof. Shaun de Freitas (left) of the Faculty of Law at the UFS and Prof. Iain Benson.

Prof. Iain T. Benson delivered his inaugural address as Professor Extraordinary in the Department of Constitutional Law and Philosophy of Law in the Faculty of Law at University of the Free State (UFS) faculty last week.

Originally hailing from Canada and currently residing with his family in France, Prof. Benson is an academic with a wealth of experience and expertise in the field of law, especially with regard to the right of conscience and religion. His achievements number many, including being a Senior Associate Counsel at one of Canada’s leading law firms, Miller Thompson LLP; and serving on the Founding Board of the Global Centre for Pluralism. 

Apart from his work on leading cases in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Prof. Benson also has strong ties with the law in South Africa. He is part of the Continuity Committee that is responsible for the major undertaking of drawing up the South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms in cooperation with all the major religions in South Africa which, when completed, will be the first use of Section 234 of the South African Constitution.

The title of the inaugural lecture was Living together with Disagreements and the Limits of the Law, which tackled various conscientious and topical issues regarding the complex relationships between the law and religions. Starting off the lecture, Prof. Benson recalled that living together with disagreement is a necessary achievement in free and democratic societies and that differences of belief and opinion should not be resolved by force acceptance of a “one-size fits all” model. Mentioning religion and same-sex marriages, Prof. Benson held these up as issues which reasonable people may disagree on and should hence be respected by the public sphere that is girded round by the law. 

Quoting Sophocles’ Antigone, Prof. Benson noted that tensions between the so-called divine and imminent or state laws as in a non-theocratic state have always been with us. He stressed the importance of a wide respect by the law for civic associations in addition to but particularly in relation to religion which guides citizens views about wrong and right beyond matters that are regulated by law.
 

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