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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

UFS in forefront with ASGI-SA initiative
2006-05-10

At the conceptualisation colloquium and stakeholder dialogue were from the left Dr Aldo Stroebel (senior researcher at the UFS Research Development Directorate), Dr Edith Vries (acting Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Development Trust) and Prof Frans Swanepoel (Director: UFS Research Development Directorate).

UFS in forefront with ASGI-SA initiative

Two staff members of the University of the Free State (UFS) have been appointed as members of the advisory board of the national programme for the creation of small enterprises and jobs in the second economy.  This programme forms part of government’s Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa (ASGI-SA).

Prof Frans Swanepoel, Director of the UFS Research Development Directorate and Dr Aldo Stroebel, senior researcher at the UFS Research Development Directorate, are working with a team of experts from the UFS on a draft implementation strategy for the national programme.  Both Prof Swanepoel and Dr Stroebel are also associated to the UFS Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.
 
“The strategy is being developed in collaboration with institutions like the Independent Development Trust, the Department of Agriculture, the National Development Agency and the Department of Trade and Industry,” says Prof  Swanepoel.  

The other team members of the UFS are Prof Basie Wessels, Director of the  Mangaung-University Community Partnership Programme (MUCPP) and Mr  Benedict Mokoena, project manager at the MUCPP.

Dr Stroebel was also member of the organising committee of a conceptualisation colloquium and stakeholder dialogue that was recently presented in Johannesburg.  The conference was attended by more than 400 delegates from government departments, higher-education institutions and civil society, including Dr Kobus Laubscher, member of the UFS Council.

The conference was facilitated by Ms Vuyo Mahlati, previously from the WK Kellogg Foundation’s Africa programme and opened by Ms Thoko Didiza, Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs.   

“The colloquium formed the basis of an induction workshop during which a group of 150 individuals (50 teams of three) from all nine provinces, identified to initiate the implementation of the national programme, was trained and orientated towards an induction manual in collaboration with Hand-in-Hand, an Indian counterpart,” says Prof Swanepoel.

Dr Stroebel and Mr Benedict Mokoena formed part of the team to conceptualise and finalise this training manual.  The induction training includes a case study of a successful community self-help partnership model, namely the MUCPP at the UFS. Prof Wessels and Mr Mokoena are both playing a leading role in the further development of subsequent training initiatives throughout South Africa, in partnership with the relevant provincial departments.

“The involvement of the UFS in the programme is a compliment to us.  It reflects the value government sees in the use of academics and experts in the management of the ASGI-SA initiative.  It is also an indication of one of the aims of the UFS to play a role in South Africa and Africa and in the transformation and change that is taking place in our country,” says Prof Swanepoel.  

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

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