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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

Emotional health of vulnerable children needs urgent intervention
2014-02-04



In South Africa, thousands of children under the age of 18 are orphaned as a result of HIV/Aids. Experts are worried that these orphans and vulnerable children will experience serious socio-emotional problems and behaviour disorders, should urgent intervention programmes not be implemented urgently.

A study was undertaken by the Centre for Development Support at the UFS, in conjunction with Stellenbosch University and the Houston University in America. The research found that in the Free State province alone, about 15% of orphans and vulnerable children showed signs of psychiatric disorders. Almost half of the children in the study showed signs of abnormal or maladjusted behavioural functioning.

The research team believes that the South African government and the numerous non-governmental organisations put too much emphasis on the physical needs of orphaned and vulnerable children and that their socio-emotional or mental wellbeing receives very little attention.

The nominal financial grant is a welcome relief for some of the needs of this risk group. Researchers are worried, though, that the lack of reliable and culturally-sensitive diagnostic methods for the early detection of psychiatric disorders may pose a challenge when the children reach puberty.

The current study is focusing on the detection of emotional behavioural problems even before adolescence. Questionnaires were distributed across the Free State at clinics, schools and non-governmental organisations dealing with these children. The questionnaires enabled researchers to establish the children's socio-emotional needs.

"Overcrowding in houses where orphans and vulnerable children often live is directly linked to poor socio-emotional health in children," says Prof Lochner Marais from the Centre for Development Support. "The state institutions offering programmes for orphans and vulnerable children overemphasise the physical and/or financial needs of these children. The programme provides, for example, food for the children, grants for the [foster] parents, assistance with school clothes and ensures clinic visits for the children. Of these, only the supply of food has a direct impact on the improved mental health of children."

The study provides, for the first time, a profile of the state of mind of this group, as well as the emotional impact of HIV/Aids – an "urgent matter" according to Dr Carla Sharp from the University of Houston's Department of Psychology. According to Dr Sharp, much more could be done to assist foster parents in addressing the emotional needs of these children. The early detection of behavioural disorders should be the key in intervention programmes.

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