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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

First-year students welcomed into Kovsie Family
2013-01-23

 

New first-year students and their parents and guardians are welcomed on the Qwaqwa and Bloemfontein campuses.
Photo: Sonia Small
23 January 2013



   YouTube Video

They came from near and far. Some hail from Bloemfontein, others from as far away as Botswana but they all have one thing in common. They were here to start their first year as Kovsie students. Thousands of first-year students, along with parents and guardians, attended the first year welcoming on the Qwaqwa and Bloemfontein campuses on 18 and 19 January 2013 respectively.

“I do not care whether you come from the Free State or Zimbabwe or whether you are from Gauteng or Lesotho. I do not care if you speak Sesotho, Setswana or Afrikaans. What I care about is that you must understand that you are smarter than you think.”

This was the message from Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State (UFS), when he officially welcomed first year students to the Qwaqwa Campus. “At the UFS, we put emphasis on two very important projects - the academic and human projects”, said Prof Jansen.

“The academic project is about you excelling academically as a student. It is about being the best you can be in your chosen field of study. All of you should strive to be like Zandile, a young girl from Umlazi who, despite her poverty and challenging conditions at home, went on to attain seven distinctions in her 2012 matric results”, said Prof Jansen. He was referring to Zandile who he tracked down via Facebook to offer her a full bursary to study at the UFS. Zandile had appeared on SABC TV news, expressing her frustration at the lack of funds to continue her studies, despite her performance.

“The human project is about you loving those who are different from you, thus becoming better human beings,” Prof Jansen said.

Prof. Jansen echoed the same message on the Bloemfontein Campus the following day when he welcomed thousands of new students. These students, their parents and guardians packed the huge tent that was erected in the CR Swart parking area of the campus. Prof. Jansen welcomed students from the different faculties during four sessions. He told parents and students that the class of 2013 was the smartest class the university had had in its 109-year history.

Mr Rudi Buys, Dean of Students, informed them about the many opportunities that awaited them at Kovsies. These include programmes like the Leadership for Change Programme for first year students and the Stanford Sophomore College Program for second year students.

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