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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

Department of Political Studies and Governance involved in regional seminar on peace and security in Southern Africa
2012-09-26

Attending the Lusaka seminar was from the left: Prof. Hussein Solomon; Prof. Virgil Hawkins from Osaka University and main organiser of the seminar; and Prof. Theo Neethling.
26 September 2012

Two staff members from the Department of Political Studies and Governance, Prof. Hussein Solomon and Prof. Theo Neethling, were recently invited by the Osaka University in Japan to participate in a regional seminar in Lusaka, Zambia, on multinational peacekeeping and peace enforcement in Southern Africa.

The seminar was organised by the Southern African Centre for Collaboration on Peace and Security funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. Prof. Solomon presented a paper on the establishment of the Southern African contingent of the African Union’s African Standby Force, while Prof. Neethling presented his paper on United Nations peacekeeping operations in the war-ravaged eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The participation of Prof. Solomon, Senior Professor, and Prof. Neethling, Head of the Department of Political Studies and Governance, comes from a cooperation agreement between Osaka University’s School for International Public Policy (OSIPP) and the Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Free State. The agreement covers issues like joint collaboration projects, the exchange of staff and senior students and joint conferences. One of the key joint areas lay in the Southern African Centre for Peace and Security Studies, a consortium of several Southern African universities with Osaka University and the University of the Free State as its key pillars.

Other universities include the University of Zambia, Zambian Open University, University of Dar es Salaam, Mozambique-Tanzania Centre for Foreign Relations. Academics from other universities in the region, like Nzuzu University in Malawi, University of Botswana, University of South Africa, Stellenbosch University, University of Zimbabwe, are all in the network.

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