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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

First Global Leadership Summit brings partner universities to our university
2012-05-17

The University of the Free State (UFS) is gearing up for the Global Leadership Summit when students from universities all over the world will visit the UFS. The summit will take place from Sunday 8 July to Friday 20 July 2012. About 180 staff and students from universities in the United States, Asia and Europe are expected to visit the UFS during these two weeks and eminent scholars and politicians have already confirmed their participation. Among them are Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Dr Tim Murithi, Prof. Mark Solms, Fulbright Scholars who were previously tenured at the university, and a number of ambassadors.

Prof. Aldo Stroebel, Director: International Academic Programmes, Office of the Vice-Chancellor, says that our university has increasingly embedded internationalisation in its strategic priorities. The Leadership for Change Programme, jointly hosted by International Affairs and Student Affairs, is a significant step forward in this context. This innovative and unique programme, initiated in 2010, serves as a leadership development programme focused on first-year students. It aims to build layers of new thinking and engagement among students from diverse backgrounds. As part of a year-long engagement, each student spends a period abroad where there is intense exposure to the academic, social, cultural and residential lives of students in other countries. A formal mentor development programme for staff runs concurrently with the initiative.
 
In the 2010 programme, 71 students in various cohorts were placed at nine universities in the USA. Following on the success of this initiative, in 2011, 150 students were hosted at partner universities in the USA, Europe and Japan. The impact of cross-cultural and cross-border experiences on changing and enriching the participants’ minds and attitudes has been manifested in a wide variety of ways at both the UFS and the partner institutions.
 
The Global Leadership Summit, with the theme, “Transcending Boundaries of Global Change Leadership”, is a reciprocal programme of the Leadership for Change initiative. It will focus on international engagements in addressing salient issues around change leadership, diversity and racial reconciliation in Higher Education through critical dialogues between staff and students from all over the world.
 
The programme will be continued during 2013 when 150 students will again be selected for participation and placement abroad.


Media Release
17 May 2012
Issued by: Lacea Loader
Director: Strategic Communication
Tel: +27(0)51 401 2584
Cell: +27(0)83 645 2454
E-mail: news@ufs.ac.za

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