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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

Deputy Minister leads a space science outreach programme in Bloemfontein
2014-02-28

The Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Michael Masutha and Mandla Maseko– the first black South African expected to go into space in 2015 – will participate in a Space Science Outreach Programme at the University of the Free State on Saturday 1 March 2014.

The event, taking place at the Bloemfontein Campus, is part of an outreach programme to raise awareness about South Africa’s advances in space science and technology and its benefits to society.

Mr Maseko will share his exciting experiences in the Axe Apollo Space Academy competition, a challenging event that included skydiving, aptitude tests and building and launching a rocket with about 600 learners from the surrounding areas. The 25-year-old from Mabopane near Pretoria will become the first black astronaut when he goes into space on the Lynx Mark II Shuttle, next year.

The outreach event will include activities such as telescope making and rocket launching. Workshops demonstrating the benefits of space science in areas such as earth observations, scientific research and development and human capital development, will also be conducted.

Among others, the open day will feature exhibitions such as the project to build the world’s largest telescope, the Square Kilometre Array and the recent launch into space of the country’s micro-satellite – ZACUBE1 built by post-graduate students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).

Other exhibitors will include the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO), the Agricultural Research Council, Denel Dynamics, the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) and the South African Weather Services (SAWS).

Officials from the provincial Department of Basic Education are also expected to attend.

Journalists are invited to the outreach

Venue: Economics Building, University of the Free State
Date: Saturday 1 March 2014
Time: 08:00

For more information, contact Veronica Mohapeloa at +27(0)82 882 3818 or +27(0)12 843 6788 or email veronica.mohapeloa@dst.gov.za OR David Mandaha at +27(0)72 126 8910 or david.mandaha@dst.gov.za

 

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