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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

Open letter from Prof Jonathan Jansen to all UFS students
2014-02-22

Dear Students of the University of the Free State

In the past four years there has emerged a new consensus on the three campuses of the University of the Free State (UFS) about the things that divide us – such as racism, sexism and homophobia. Students and campus leaders have worked hard to develop this new consensus in residences and in the open spaces on campus. There can be no doubt that new bonds of friendship have developed across the markers of race, ethnicity, class, religion and sexual orientation. I bear witness to these new solidarities every day on the campus.

You chose a white student to head up the transformation portfolio on the SRC. You chose a black captain to head up the university’s first team in rugby. You chose a white “prime” as head of residence to lead a predominantly black men’s residence. You chose a South African woman of Indian descent as Rag Queen and last week, a black student from Cape Town as the men’s Rag winner—choices not possible and never made before in our campus history. Many of you have intimate friends who come from different social or cultural or religious backgrounds. You learn together, share rooms together, pray together and party together. In other words, in the day to day workings of this university campus, you have demonstrated to campus, city and country that we can overcome the lingering effects of racism and other maladies in this new generation. You have helped create a university community inclusive of people of diverse religions, abilities, class and sexual orientation.

I have said this repeatedly that from time to time this new consensus will be tested – when a minority of students, and they are a small and dwindling minority, still act as if these are the days of apartheid. And when that consensus is tested as it was this week, and as it will be tested in the future, only then we will be able to assess the strength and durability of our progress in creating a new South African campus culture of human togetherness based on respect, dignity and embrace.

The real test of our leadership, including student leadership, is how we respond when our transformation drive is threatened.

Let me say this: I have absolute faith in you, as students of this great university, to stand together in your condemnation of these vile acts of violence and to move together in your determination to maintain the momentum for the Human Project of the University of the Free State. We have come too far to allow a few criminals to derail what you have built together in recent years.

There will, no doubt, be unscrupulous people on all sides of the political spectrum wanting to milk this tragedy for their own narrow purposes. There will be false information, rumours and exaggerations by those who wish to inflame a bad situation to gain mileage for their agendas. That is inevitable in a country that is still so divided.

I ask you, through all of this, to keep perspective. Two or ten or even twenty students behaving badly do not represent 30,000 students; a minority of violent and hateful persons do not represent the ideals, ambitions and commitments of the majority. At the same time, let us be realistic – anyone who thinks you can drive transformation without resistance clearly does not understand the difficult process of change.

The events of the week remind us, however, that we still have a long road to walk in deepening social and academic transformation at our university. Yes, we have invested hundreds of hours in training and mentorship; we have created new structures – such as the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice – to capture the energy and imagination of students driving transformation; we have created many opportunities for students to study and travel on this and other continents to enable cross-cultural learning; we have established formal and informal opportunities to dialogue about difficult issues on and off campus between students and their leaders; and we crafted new curricula to enable teaching and learning on the big questions of our times.

But this is clearly not enough, and so I have decided on the following immediate next steps:
  1. We will meet for several hours next week to think about how we can deepen the transformation of our university after this terrible incident.

  2. We will arrange a University Assembly on the events of the past week so that we speak with one voice on human wrongs and to re-commit to human rights and we will continue with open forum discussions during the months to come.

  3. We will review the entire spectrum of programmes, from orientation to residence life to the undergraduate curriculum, to determine how effective our interventions really are in reaching all students with respect to basic issues of human rights.

  4. We will review our media and communications strategy to determine how far and deep our messages on human rights travel across all sectors of the university community. In this regard it is important that the campus be blanketed on a regular basis with our condemnation of human wrongs and our commitment to human rights.

  5. We will commission the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice to review the events of the past week and make recommendations on how we can improve the campus environment so that all students are protected from harm inside residences, classrooms and in open spaces of the campus.

  6. We will take the questions raised during this week into the academic community and to the general staff of the university so that all personnel also engage with our own roles and responsibilities with respect to campus transformations.

  7. We undertake to make annual report-backs on transformation to all stakeholders in public forums so that students and staff and external communities can track the progress of the university on matters of human rights on campus.

I wish to thank my staff for acting firmly as soon as this tragic event came to our attention. We worked through the night to find and identify the perpetrators. We traced the two students and immediately handed them to the police. They were expelled. And throughout this process we offered counselling and support to the victim of this violent act.

The two former students were expelled and will now face justice in the criminal courts. It is hoped that in the course of time they will come to their senses and seek restoration and reconciliation with the student they so callously harmed. They are not part of the university community anymore.

That is the kind of university we are.

Jonathan D Jansen
Vice-Chancellor and Rector
University of the Free State
20 February 2014

 
Note: The use of the word ‘campus’ refers to all three campuses of the UFS, namely the Bloemfontein Campus, South Campus and Qwaqwa Campus.

 

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