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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

Middle East activists speak about peace on the Bloemfontein Campus
2012-03-15

 

Bassem Eid (left) and Benjamin Pogrund discuss the situation in the Middle East.
Photo: Johan Roux
15 March 2012

Peace is a big word in the Middle East, particularly amongst Israelis and Palestinians. After years of conflict, people yearn for peace; they want an end to the killings and the uncertainty. The problem is that both sides are actively doing things that undermine the prospect of peace. There is also double talk, lies and evasion with each side pointing fingers. This was the word from Benjamin Pogrund, an Israeli peace activist, addressing staff and students on the Bloemfontein Campus of the University of the Free State. He and fellow peace activist Bassem Eid, a Palestinian, visited the campus to speak about the situation in the Middle East.

Both men agreed that peace efforts were hindered by the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders. According to Pogrund, neither the Palestinians, nor the Israelis are leading the way in accepting that the conflict must end.
 
“Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders say let us get together with no pre-conditions. Then the Israeli leaders say, Jerusalem we cannot share, that is not for negotiation. And, they say to the Palestinians you must recognise Israel as a Jewish state. So, what they say is unless you agree to these pre-conditions there can be no talks without pre-conditions.
 
“And the Palestinians in turn say the settlement construction must cease immediately, and unless that happened, there is no point in meeting. And they say we will never acknowledge you as a Jewish state so do not even bother talking about it. And we insist on the right of return of Palestinian refugees. So they also say unless you acknowledge these pre-conditions there is no point in meeting with our pre-conditions. So as you can gather each side blames the other side, each side points the finger and says you are responsible for the lack of progress.”
 
Pogrund said both the Israelis and the Palestinians could demand legitimacy in that part of the world.
 
“Both Jewish and Arabs can say we have history on our side. We have religion on our side, culture.”
 
To compare Israel to Apartheid South Africa is wrong, he said.
 
“It is an occupation, it is repression, but it is not Apartheid.”
 
Eid, who is the director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, said the Palestinians were close to having a complete independent Palestinian state from 1994 to 1999.
 
“But in one rocket former Israeli Prime minister Ariel Sharon destroyed it.”
 
He said Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 did not bring political unity.
 
“We, the Palestinians, were supposed to start building the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip but unfortunately Hamas started dancing on that Israeli disengagement and considered it as their own success because of their military resistance against the occupation.” He also said Hamas is satisfied with its hold in the Gaza Strip and Fatah is also very satisfied with its hold in the West Bank. According to Eid, it is convenient for the Israelis that the Palestinians are separated.

 

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