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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

Deborah Meier on Education and Social Justice
2012-06-18

 

With Deborah Meier is, from the left: Brian Naidoo, Senior Lecturer: Department of English; and Rèné Eloff, Research Assistant at the International Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice.
Photo: Johan Roux
18 June 2012

Celebrated author and educator, Deborah Meier, recently visited the university. Meier, ranked among the most acclaimed leaders of the school reform movement in the United States, spoke about democracy and education at a Critical Conversation hosted by the International Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice.

Speaking from her experience of the United States education system, Meier said that she had always been primarily concerned by the fact that schools were not engaging children in discussions about important and difficult topics such as democracy, race and class. As far as democracy was concerned, Meier pointed out that most schools viewed the occasional voting exercise as a lesson in democracy. However, as far as she was concerned, voting was the least important aspect of democracy. She admitted that democracy was almost impossible define, but in her view engaging with this difficulty was, in itself, an important democratic act – an act which could and should find its rightful place in the classroom.

Meier pointed out that children were effectively “incarcerated” for the six hours they spent at school every day. She expressed her grave concern about the fact that this time was not used to nurture and develop the considerable energy and creativity that young children had. Meier envisioned a school that could rise up to this challenge. At one point she mused, “Did I miss something? Did we invent some other institution that was taking on this responsibility?”

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