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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. Jansen meets the community
2012-05-16

 

Prof. Jansen listens attentively to Mr Teboho Moloi, who represented the Harrismith Business Forum at the community meeting where the UFS vision was shared.
Photo: Thabo Kessah

16 May 2012

We are very proud of our academic achievements, but without the human element, these achievements are not worth anything. This is according to Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector, who attended a meeting with the Thabo Mofutsanyana community in the Eastern Free State.

Prof. Jansen made the community aware that the university has two very important and interlinked projects – the academic and human projects.

“Our university has ambitions to produce the best scholars in various fields, but this cannot be done if we neglect the human aspect of doing things in the right way. We want to produce academic giants as much as we want to produce graduates of life,” said Prof. Jansen to an audience that included representatives from the traditional councils, business, religious and farming communities as well as the Maluti-A-Phofung and Dihlabeng Local Municipalities.

Prof. Jansen said that the memorandum of understanding that the university signed with the Dihlabeng Local Municipality in 2010 was already yielding positive results.

“There has been an enormous improvement in the matric results of the Dihlabeng schools that are part of our efforts to contribute towards building a brighter future for our children. We want to thank the municipality and the Honourable Mayor Tjhetane Mofokeng for being part of this partnership,” added Prof. Jansen.
 
“We are grateful that the university is considerate of its stakeholders in developing this Maluti-A-Phofung area. I am also aware that this institution has contributed towards the building of a crèche in the Mabolela village in Qwaqwa and for this we are very happy,” said Ms Linah Mnisi from Motlotlwane Projects and Consultants.
 

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