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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 academic discusses Dutch, Afrikaans and African languages
2006-05-22

During the colloquium presented in Belgium by the Province Antwerp were from the left Prof Pol Cuvelier (University of Antwerp), Prof Theo du Plessis (Director: Unit for Language Management at the UFS), Mr Ludo Helsen (Permanent Deputy: Province of Antwerp) and Mr Jean-Pierre Rondas (Flemish radio journalist).

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UFS academic discusses Dutch, Afrikaans and African languages at international conference

Prof Theo du Plessis, Director of the Unit for Language Management at the University of the Free State (UFS), was the main speaker at a colloquium titled “Routes:  Where to now? - Een traject van het Nederlands naar het Afrikaans en de Afrikatalen”, which was recently presented by the Province Antwerp in Belgium.

 The aim of the colloquium was to discuss the future cooperation in the field of language between the Province Antwerp and South Africa. 

 The Province Antwerp is already involved with projects in South Africa.  One of these projects is the Multilingual Information Development Programme (MIDP), a partnership project between the UFS and the Free State Province that is mainly funded by the Province Antwerp. 

 The project has been running since 1999 and was recently in the news with the presentation of a symposium on multilingualism and exclusion on the Main Campus of the UFS.  It is hoped that the Routes colloquium will indicate new stages on which can be added to the already successful cooperation in the area of language.

 Prof Du Plessis’s presentation titled “Nederlands, Afrikaans en die Afrikatale – kan samewerking slaag? Die geval MIDP in die Vrystaat”, investigated the successes that have been made with the MIDP.  He discussed two possible approaches to cooperation in the areas of language, that of a sentimentalistic  approach against an instrumentalistic approach. 

Cooperation in the first approach makes language the aim.  In the second approach language is used as a means to a greater aim.  According to Prof du Plessis the first approach is driven by a romantisised idea about the relation between the Flemish and Afrikaans speaking people, which may unfortunately polarise the position of Afrikaans in South Africa even further.

 He argues that, given the time that we are in, the second approach will deliver more constructive results as language can among others be used for to further  democracy in South Africa.   This can happen by cooperation in the institutionalising of multilingualism in our society.  The more languages are used in education, law and government administration, the more we can be assured a successful democracy.

 The Routes colloquium was facilitated by the well-known Flemish radio journalist, Jean-Pierre Rondas. About twenty South African and Flemish language specialists took part in the colloquium.  Dr Fritz Kok, outgoing chief executive officer of the ATKV took part in the opening ceremony and Dr Neville Alexander from the University of Cape Town and well-known activist for multilingualism in South Africa was also one of the main speakers.

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