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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

These boots are made for walking ... to Cape Town
2014-04-24

On Thursday 1 May 2014, four pairs of feet gave their first stride on a journey that will last for 33 days and stretch over 1 000 kilometres.

These feet belong to four very brave volunteers who will walk all the way to the Cape in order to highlight the problem of food insecurity among students.

Adéle van Aswegen and Ntokozo Nkabinde from the University of the Free State (UFS), together with Ronél Warner and Nico Piedt, both from Bloemfontein, are undertaking this hike as part of a fund-raising effort for the UFS’s No Student Hungry bursary (NSH bursary).

The NSH bursary, established in 2011 by Prof Jonathan Jansen, the UFS’s Vice-Chancellor and Rector, and Rudi Buys, Dean of Student Affairs, is aimed at alleviating food insecurity among students at the UFS.

The food bursary is awarded on the grounds of financial need, good academic performance, active participation in student-life programmes and a commitment to community service.

“The NSH bursary of about R30 per student forms only a small part of a student’s day, but it makes a huge difference in their lives,” says Vicky Simpson, coordinator of this programme offering assistance to more than 100 students.

You can follow our hikers’ progress on Twitter by using the #NSHstride. We will also keep you updated on Facebook and our website.

Meanwhile, everyone is invited to show their support for the hikers in a fun way. Take a picture of your foot (or feet), tweet the photo with #NSHstride @UFSweb or post it on your Facebook page and challenge all your friends to do the same.

Daily updates:
(You can also follow us on @UFSweb for daily tweets)

Day 14: 14 May 2014
18:33
43 km
Joalani Guest Farm

Day 13: 13 May 2014
17:30
33 km
Die Rondawels

Day 12: 12 May 2014
16:49
40 km
Aandrus B&B in Richmond

Day 11: 11 May 2014
39 km
Wortelfontein (Magdel and Christiaan)

Day 10: 10 May 2014
15:44
34 km
Hanover Lodge

Day 9: 09 May 2014
40.8 km
Camping between Colesberg and Hanover

Day 8: 08 May 2014
15:25
33.7 km
Colesberg, The Lighthouse Guesthouse

Day 7: 07 May 2014

15:08
23 km
Orange River Lodge

Day 6: 06 May 2014
15:57

51.06 km
Gariep Forever Resort

Day 5: 05 May 2014
12:18
28 km
Rondefontein

Day 4: 04 May 2014
15:27

35 km
Trompsburg: Fox Den

Day 3: 03 May 2014
17:30
46.74 km
Edenburg Country Lodge (Hotel)

Day 2: 02 May 2014
11:44 am
15.3 km
Tom's Place

Day 1: 01 May 2014
32 km
Leeuwberg

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