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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

Learners to benefit from UFS Partnership for academic excellence
2013-02-21

 

Thokoana Makaota learners listening attentively during the launch of the partnership with the UFS.
Photo: Thabo Kessah
21 February 2013

The university’s quest for academic excellence in the education system paved the way for the Faculty of Education on the Qwaqwa Campus to enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with a local school, Thokoana Makaota Secondary.

This recently launched partnership will enable learners who are currently in grades 10-12 to attend supplementary classes on the campus.

“The aim of this partnership is to expose learners from the school to adequate tuition in subjects that are generally perceived as difficult. We want them to gain as much confidence as possible when tackling these subjects, therefore they will be using our well-equipped laboratories and classes”, said Dr Lekhooe Letsie, the Programme Coordinator.

“We will also benefit from this as our own final-year education students will act as tutors. This will help them gain confidence before they venture into the real job market next year,” Dr Letsie said.

Dr Letsie also revealed that the student-teachers will be closely monitored by their mentors to ensure maximum success.

The school’s Deputy Principal and UFS alumnus, Serame Sello, said that the school felt humbled by this gesture from the UFS.

“We are confident that this working relationship will yield very positive results for the school and enable us to improve on the 84% pass rate obtained in 2012,” Sello said.

“We did not do so well in the subjects that will be covered here. For instance, we obtained 43% and 61% in Physical Science and Mathematics respectively, but with this partnership we hope for improved results this year,” said Sello.

Other subjects to be covered include Geography, Life Sciences, Economics, and Accounting. The different grades will commute to and from campus on different afternoons.

 

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