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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

SASOL TRAC laboratory launched at UFS Qwaqwa Campus
2006-05-08

Some of the guests attending the launch of the Sasol TRAC Laboratory at the University of the Free State's (UFS) Qwaqwa Campus were from the left Prof Peter Mbati (Principal of the Qwaqwa Campus), Mrs Zimbini Zwane ( Communications Manager of Sasol Infrachem), Prof Gerhardt  de Klerk (Dean : UFS Faculty of the Humanities), Prof Fred Hugo
 Director of TRAC SA) and Prof Jack van der Linde (Director of RIEP at the UFS).

SASOL TRAC laboratory launched at UFS Qwaqwa Campus

The Research Institute for Education Planning (RIEP) of the University of the Free State (UFS) today unveiled the Sasol TRAC Laboratory at its Qwaqwa campus.

The laboratory will be used to help grade 10, 11 and 12 learners and educators from the Qwaqwa region to conduct the experiments from the physical sciences outcome-based curriculum.

“The Sasol TRAC Laboratory introduces learners not only to the latest technology used by engineers and other scientists in practice but also to stimulate the learner’s interest in the field of science in such a way that more of them will enter into science related careers,” says Mr Cobus van Breda, Co-ordinator of the TRAC Free State Regional Centre.

According to Mr van Breda the newly established Sasol TRAC Laboratory will enable RIEP to train learners and their educators in Physical Sciences.  The laboratory will consist of six work stations equipped with computers and electronic sensors.

“Learners from the Qwaqwa region will visit the Sasol TRAC Laboratory on regular basis to conduct experiments based on the curriculum.  Data will be collected with electronic apparatus and presented as graphs on the computer so that results can be analysed and interpreted,” says Mr van Breda.

“There is a serious shortage of suitable qualified teachers in maths and science in the Qwaqwa region.  Many schools in the region are not yet part of the RIEP project and are in dire need of assistance.  A large number of these schools are in remote areas not reached regularly by intervention programmes,” says Prof Peter Mbati, Principal of the UFS Qwaqwa Campus.

“The establishment of the Sasol TRAC Laboratory at the Qwaqwa Campus provides us the opportunity to engage with our community and assist in the development and training of these vital education subjects.  We are pleased that Sasol agreed to fund the project,” says Prof Mbati.

Students from the Qwaqwa Campus will also benefit from the TRAC programme.   “Some promising students will also undergo further training and become assistants for the TRAC programme,” says Prof Mbati. 

“Nurturing science and mathematical skills is of great importance in growing our national economy. Annually, Sasol invests more than R50 million in supporting mathematical and science education in South Africa. Our primary aim is to increase the number of learners gaining access to tertiary education in the science fields. Therefore, our Corporate Social Investment (CSI) education interventions at secondary school level focus on educator development and direct learner interventions such as the Sasol TRAC Laboratory,” explains Ms Pamilla Mudhray, CSI and SHARP manager at Sasol.

According to Ms Mudhray the implementation of the National Curriculum Statement for physical sciences in the further education and training (FET) phase from 2006, under resourced schools will need greater access to the tools and equipment necessary to teach the syllabus and fulfil the ideals of the curriculum.

TRAC South Africa is a national non-profit programme focused on supporting and expanding science, mathematics and technology education in secondary schools. The programme was first introduced to South Africa in 1994. In 2005, RIEP established the TRAC Free State regional centre on the UFS Main Campus in Bloemfontein.

Media release
Issued by: Lacea Loader
Media Representative
Tel:   (051) 401-2584
Cell:  083 645 2454
E-mail:  loaderl.stg@mail.uovs.ac.za
5 May 2006

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