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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

Top ‘political analyst’ for Spring graduation
2013-09-15

Graduands and parents can prepare themselves for an exciting Spring graduation, with a top ‘political analyst’ and a young woman who sees and sings with her soul, as guest speakers.

Chester Missing, South Africa’s top puppet political commentator, and Shenley Pretorius, a blind singer, will address the more or less 650 graduands on Thursday 19 September 2013. 

A total of 544 bachelors and honours degrees, as well as 106 diplomas and certificates, will be awarded during the graduation ceremony in the Callie Human Centre at the Bloemfontein Campus. The qualifications will be awarded at two ceremonies.

Chester Missing, a presenter on the television programme, Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola, will be 'accompanied' by Conrad Koch, one of South Africa’s most in demand comedy talents.

The 15-year-old Shenley touched people’s hearts nationwide when she appeared on Noot vir Noot, the SABC2 music programme, earlier this year. The teenager is a Grade 9 learner at Prinshof School for the Visually Impaired in Pretoria.

The programme for the different ceremonies is as follows:

  • 09:30 The Faculty of the Humanities awards 160 qualifications, The Faculty of Education 71 qualifications, the Faculty of Law 27 qualifications and the Faculty of Theology 2 qualifications.
  • 14:30 The Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences awards 137 qualifications, the Faculty of Health Sciences 98 qualifications and the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences 155 qualifications.

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