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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

Summer programme a first outside Austria
2012-12-06

 

Mr Derek Hanekom, Minister of Science and Technology
Foto: Johan Roux

05 Desember 2012

People often fight about their differences, like skin colour, religion and more. “These differences are minute. We must celebrate our common ancestry and commit ourselves to a common destiny. Your work can make a difference.” This is according to Mr Derek Hanekom, Minister of Science and Technology.

He opened the Southern African Young Scientists Summer Programme (SA-YSSP) at the Bloemfontein Campus on Sunday 2 December 2012. The UFS is the first institution outside Austria to host the Summer Programme. A total of 19 young researchers from 17 countries will be hosted by the UFS until 28 February 2013. Researchers in the programme are, among others, from South Africa, Egypt, China, Italy, Sweden, Iran, Hungary, India, the USA and Indonesia.

The programme will form part of an annual three-month education, academic training and research capacity-building programme jointly organised by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), based in Austria, the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST). IIASA is an international research organisation that conducts policy-oriented scientific research in the three global problem areas of energy and climate change, food and water and poverty and equity. South Africa’s engagements with IIASA, specifically with regard to the SA-YSSP, relate primarily to the DST’s Ten-Year Innovation Plan.

Mr Hanekom spoke about the impact the growing global population, which is expected to grow from 7 billion in 2012 to 9 billion in 2050, has on natural resources. “We use purified water to flush our toilets while other people do not have clean drinking water. We cannot carry on like this. Somewhere it must stop, if we do not want to be responsible for the 6th great extinction. We must know how our systems impact on each other.

“We can do things differently and better and should endeavour that other people enjoy luxuries we take for granted,” he said.

He urged the researchers to believe that they can make a difference, share knowledge and translate the knowledge into plans.

Prof. Dr Pavel Kabat, Director/CEO of IIASA, said the summer programme was presented outside Austria for the first time, with plans to expand to Brazil and China in future. Twenty countries are represented on the IIASA board, with more than 3 000 researchers associated with the organisation.

IIASA was launched in 1972 in the days of the Cold War as a “science bridge” between the West and the Soviet Union. It served as a “think tank” for various issues that needed to be resolved. Its mission was reconfirmed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

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