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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

Two of our academics contribute to a fascinating book
2012-08-11

Prof. Jo van As earlier this year with proofs of the book The Story of Life & the Environment: An African Perspective.
Photo: Leatitia Pienaar
10 August 2012

The planet has more species than ever before, but humans are responsible for the biggest mass extinction of all times. This is according to Prof. Jo van As, Head of the Department of Zoology and Entomology. He was speaking at the launch of the book The Story of Life & the Environment: An African Perspective.

The book was published by Random House Struik in July 2012 and is a sister publication of The Story of Earth & Life by Prof. Bruce Rubidge, which was published in 2005.

The Story of Life & the Environment: An African Perspective took five years to complete. Prof. Van As was the compiling author, with Prof. Johann du Preez, Head of Plant Sciences at our university, Prof. Leslie Brown of Unisa and Prof. Nico Smit of the North-West University as co-writers.

Prof. Van As said, “No other species has destroyed the earth as we have done. Biological diversity disappears at the rate of mass extinction. The effects of human activities on the biological diversity is bigger that the extinction of the dinosaurs.”

He, however, added that The Story of Life & the Environment: An African Perspective does not sketch a doomsday scenario. It has also a message of hope. Prof. Van As said it was good to see progress in conservation and care for the environment. Trans-frontier parks the size of some countries are a good example of work in this regard.

Mr Stephen Johnson, chairperson of the board of Random House Struik, said at the launch that the publishing house was proud to be associated with the impressive book. The publication will be a touchstone for thoughtful readers for a long time. It will also remain a general book for the public and learners on the topic. The content and design was done in such a way that the publication will be relevant to all audiences.

The Afrikaans version of the book, Die Verhaal van Lewe en die Omgewing, will be published soon.
 

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