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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

Inspiration from an Olympic Champion for Spring graduandi
2012-09-20

Photo: Hannes Pieterse
20 September 2012

The guest list for the Spring Graduation ceremony of the University of the Free State included an Olympic gold medallist, a former Miss South Africa finalist and the Prime Minister of a neigbouring country.

The new graduates could draw inspiration from Olympic swimming champion Chad le Clos, who was the guest speaker at the event. Also attending was the Prime Minister of Lesotho, the Honourable Thomas Thabane, who came to watch his grandson graduating from Kovsies. Sharing a stage with Le Clos was Rolene Strauss, a medical student, who was among the top five contestants at last year’s Miss South Africa competition.

Le Clos, who became a national hero in July when he won a gold medal in the 200 m butterfly at the Olympic Games by beating American swimming legend Michael Phelps, told new graduates to strive for the impossible. Giving them insight into his remarkable achievement, Le Clos told them nobody had expected him to beat Michael Phelps. “Even I thought it was impossible to achieve. Always have a goal and work towards it,” he told them and said his ambition was to build up swimming in South Africa. Le Clos said he hoped that by 2016 there would be more swimmers making South Africa proud.

Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the university, delivered an Olympic-inspired message. Quoting the motto of the modern Olympic Games, ‘faster, higher and stronger’, Prof. Jansen told the new graduates that they had to be better than those who came before them. “I expect my students in a troubled country to learn how to be different, faster, higher and stronger. Faster means efficiency; it means to be responsive to those in need."

Drawing lessons for the country from Le Clos' victory, Dr Khotso Mokhele, Chancellor of the University, told the graduates to choose optimism. Referring to the Marikana mine tragedy, Dr Mokhele said the country was far from taking the last stroke. “Even if it looks as if the curtain is down; remember that final stroke of Chad le Clos and how the great Michael Phelps was defeated.”
 

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