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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

Kovsie alumni honoured
2012-09-10

Mr Mickey Gordon, Head of Marketing at the UFS, with Jaco Loubser (right), Kovsie Alumnus of the Year.
Photo: Dries Myburg
10 September 2012
 

Jaco Loubser, the producer of television programmes such as Shoreline on SABC and Groen, Roer and MK Kampus on kykNET has been named as the Kovsie Alumnus of the Year by the University of the Free State (UFS). Loubser and five other Kovsie alumni were honoured for outstanding achievements and contributions at the Kovsie Alumni Awards held on the Bloemfontein Campus.

Jaco, who obtained a master’s degree in Zoology from the UFS, received the award for outstanding achievements on national and international level for his contribution to and development of the South African film and television industry.

Prof. Stephen Brown, Associate Professor in the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health and Prof. Hennie Theron, Associate Professor in the Department of Cardiology, received the Cum Laude Award for exceptional service for a specific profession. Profs. Brown and Theron were recognised as pioneers in the development and application of medical technology, as well as for their pioneering work in paediatric care.

The Kovsie Alumni Awards for outstanding service to the UFS was also shared by two people, namely Prof. Hendri Kroukamp, Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, and Advocate Wessels Oosthuizen, Director of the Centre for Financial Planning Law at the UFS. The Kovsie Ambassador’s Award went to Prof. Matie Hoffman, Associate Professor in the Department of Physics.

Jaco thanked Prof. Hoffman in his speech and said it was good to share the stage with one of his former lecturers. Jaco, who has received numerous awards for his television programmes, said the Kovsie Alumni Award was unexpected and it was a great honour to receive it from his alma mater.
 

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