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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

“Deploy your education and not connections,” Chancellor tells graduates
2012-05-16

 

Qwaqwa Autumn Graduation
Photo: Thabo Kessah
16 May 2012

Our Qwaqwa Campus conferred 424 degrees, diplomas and certificates at this year’s autumn graduation ceremony held on 12 May 2012.

Amongst the degrees conferred were two doctorates in Polymer Science, two Master’s of Arts in Geography and African Languages, respectively, five Master’s of Science degrees in Physics (3) and Polymer Science (2) and 37 honours degrees in Education, Zoology, Physics, Botany and Polymer Science.

In their congratulatory messages, both the Vice-Rector: Institutional Affairs, Prof. Teuns Verschoor, and the Chancellor, Dr Khotso Mokhele, challenged the graduates to start focusing their attention beyond their graduation on what they both referred to as “the real world”.

“Graduation ceremonies are a fantastic event, but you must never lose sight of appreciating the support given by those around you,” said Dr Mokhele.

“This hall was full of shouting and yes, you must bask in that glory, knowing that you have achieved part of your goals. Yes, this is your moment, so shine. You deserve it. You have earned it.”

“However, this noise also means you must go out there and face the real world. You are graduating in a model country on how people can reconcile, despite their painful and divided past. You deserve all the accolades, but that model country is disappearing before your eyes. How can you mess up what Mandela, Biko, Sobukwe, Nardine Gordimer lived and fought for? How can you mess up such a good thing?” Dr Mokhele asked of an attentive audience that included proud parents and siblings, as well as educators and learners from the Thabo Mofutsanyana District.

“Go out there and deploy your education and not your connections, as these are embedded in corruption. Go out there and help get rid of the patronage system where hard-workers are more likely to be constructively dismissed as they stand in the way of those with corrupt tendencies. Save this country from becoming another Zimbabwe. Let us do whatever it takes to save this country. Let these matriculants who are here today want to walk that red carpet with pride in the next few years,”,said Dr Mokhele.

Dignitaries in attendance included the former Chief Minister of the former Qwaqwa homeland, Dr T K Mopeli; the Executive Mayor of the Dihlabeng Local Municipality, Councillor Tjhetane Mofokeng; Dr SWF Moloi (Thabo Mofutsanyana Education District) and representatives from various government departments.
 

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