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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

More international recognition for Vice-Chancellor
2013-09-27

27 September 2013

Two international awards will be bestowed on Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State (UFS), in the coming months for his dedication to Education.

These awards will add to the multiple international and local achievements and awards Prof Jansen has received this year.

He will join the ranks of laureates of Kappa Delta Pi (KDP) during the organisation’s 49th Biennial Conference in Dallas, Texas, from 24 to 26 October 2013. KDP is an international honour society in education, founded by Dr William Bagley at the University of Illinois in 1911. It was established to foster excellence in education and promote fellowship among those dedicated to teaching. KDP comprises 600 chapters and more than 40 000 members.

On 18 May 2014, the University of Vermont in the USA will confer an honorary doctorate on Prof Jansen for his passionate leadership in higher education and his contributions as scholar to benefit students across the world.

In June 2013, Prof Jansen received the Education Africa Lifetime Achievement Award for Africa in New York at a joint function of Education Africa and Brand South Africa. He joined a list of recipients including Sir Bob Geldof, Sir Richard Branson and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. The Education Africa Lifetime Achievement Award for Africa is a highly-regarded recognition on the world stage, awarded to individuals who focus the attention of the global community on the obstacles some of the poorest African nations face.

The University of California in the USA awarded him the Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance. The award is made in recognition of persons who exemplify in their work the delivery of social justice, diplomacy and tolerance in the diverse local and global society.

Also in the United States, Prof Jansen has been invited to be Messenger Lecturer for Fall 2013 at Cornell University. He will give three lectures and interact with the students and staff of Cornell at various functions.

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