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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 academics receive prestigious fellowship for leadership programme
2013-01-16

The University of the Free State (UFS) boasts two academics who received the HELM LEAD (Higher Education and Leadership Programme) Fellowship for 2013. Prof. Liezel Lues from the Department of Public Administration and Management and Prof. Liezel Herselman from the Department of Plant Sciences both received this prestigious fellowship.  

After the nationwide nomination procedure – with a choice from 120 applications - Higher Education South Africa (HESA) awarded 25 placements in the programme. Candidates who were selected, had to be in middle-management positions within the university sector, had to have exceptional qualities, and had to exhibit management and leadership potential within their university.  

This group will now undergo a number of modules in Higher Education, which will start during January in Cape Town. The aim of the programme, running between February 2013 and April 2013, is to provide learning opportunities for middle and senior managers to gain knowledge and skills, with a view to the successful navigation of the constant challenges of change and to interpret effectively the operational impact of internal and external drivers.  

Modules include topics such as Academic Policy and Planning; Governance and Strategy; Systems Management; and Managing People and Change.  

Prof. Lues stated that she applied for the programme because she strongly believes that an effective and vibrant public sector, and especially the role of female academics therein, will play a fundamental role in the transformation of the South African community towards a prosperous and tolerant society. “I believe the LEAD component of HESA will offer me the opportunity to enhance my knowledge and insight with regard to the socio-political environment and its impact on higher education institutions. The envisaged outcomes of the programme will also directly lead to the improvement of my leadership and management practices within the UFS’ Department of Public Administration and Management,” said Prof. Lues.  

Prof. Herselman was appointed as Head of the Department of Plant Sciences, effective from 1 January 2013.  She is very excited about this new position and said: “Although I am looking forward to the new challenge, I am aware of my lack of experience as a manager. The LEAD programme will provide me with the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed as Head of Department and will give me the opportunity to strengthen the Department of Plant Sciences and to make it a Department of international stature.”

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