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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

Physical Planning lives in recaptured space
2014-06-18

When the Department of Physical Planning decided on a new office premises, the team decided to tackle the project with an overarching theme – recycling.

It is important for Physical Planning to not only dictate to other departments on campus, but to set the example themselves,” says Nico Janse van Rensburg, Director: Physical Planning at the UFS. 

Recaptured space

New office space on campus is simply not available. It was therefore decided to recover space and a store room was identified. “Fortunately, the storage area had ceilings. However, it was dilapidated and was sagging all over. To divert attention from the ceiling, we painted it in a dark colour and the walls white.

“All wiring was also done superficially. It draws the attention away from the uneven surfaces and simplifies work on the wiring. Instead of trying to hide it, we made a focal point of it,” says Janse van Rensburg.

Recycled building materials

Lots of the building material that was used to convert the storage space into offices, was recovered from other building projects on campus. Material that would normally be discarded was utilised creatively to not only serve a practical purpose, but also an aesthetic one.

A laboratory basin was used as wash basin. Remaining parts of granite slabs from other sites were utilised as top for the basin. Existing toilets were also reused. To enhance the atmosphere, new taps in an affordable, but durable range were installed.

Recycled furniture

We rambled through every possible store room to find furniture. Tables were simply sanded and varnished and look better than new. Even the cabinet at the entrance was saved from wind and weather and reused.

Hot and smart

Only one screen wall was built. It was left in raw brick, unplastered and unpainted to contribute to contrasting textures. Existing walls were left painted or unpainted as it was before.

“The environment that was created breaks down several existing perceptions. Such as the perception that everything has to match; everything has to be plastered and painted and many others. This is an example of how different materials can be combined to create a lively environment.

“Staff members have already moved into their new offices and are very satisfied,” says Janse van Rensburg. 

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