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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

Multimillion rand donation to boost UFS schools
2013-02-05

At the launch were Dr Cobus van Breda, Director of the Science-for-the- Future Unit at the UFS, Mr Makhetha Botsane from the Free State Department of Education Mrs. Elizna Prinsloo, Programme Manager of the Family Maths and Family Science project and Mr Graham McCulloch, Free State representative of the Ilima Trust.
Photo: Kelly Abrahams
05 February 2013

The University of the Free State’s UFS) Family Maths and Family Science project has received a R1 million sponsorship from Old Mutual for 2013. This is a three-year project whereby the university’s School of Open Learning aims to demystify mathematics and science in the early school years, as stated in their mission. The launching ceremony took place on 1 February 2013 at the UFS Campus.

The sponsorship was made available by Old Mutual, but will be managed by the project management group, Ilima Trust.

The UFS received R30 million altogether from Old Mutual for the use on various projects.

Except for the Family Maths and Family Science project, the Schools make over project and the Internet Broadcasting Programme will also benefit from this donation.

“Ilima has a hands-on relationship with different projects and is the public face for the FM & FS sponsorship,” said Mr Graham McCulloch, Ilima Trust representative for the Free State.

“Today is the first step on the long road to improving math and science in the country,” McCulloch said.

Dr Cobus van Breda, Director of the Science-for-the-Future Unit  says the Family Math and Family Science Project makes science and math accessible to children and their parents in the early years, with the aim of developing positive attitudes towards these often difficult school subject.

“This project aims to empower educators, parents and student educators by iving support and training in hands-on teaching methodologies.”

Learners, educators and parents from 18 schools in Thaba Nchu and Botshabelo will benefit from this project. Teachers will receive training at the UFS and then return to their community to train parents and to teach learners. Teachers will also receive activity material to use in classrooms.

“The selection of the 18 participating schools took place by identifying feeder schools of secondary schools from the UFS School Change Project, trying to create a whole-school development,” Van Breda said.

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