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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

Unconventional oil and gas extraction – study for Water Research Commission reveals possible impacts
2014-11-05

 

Photo: Legalplanet.org
The Centre for Environmental Management (CEM) at the University of the Free State (UFS) recently completed a three-year project for the Water Research Commission. The purpose was to develop an interactive vulnerability map and monitoring framework for unconventional oil and gas extraction (final report still to be published).

Due to the complexity of this field, a number of participants across different disciplines and universities were involved in this trans-disciplinary study. Contributors included the Departments of Sociology, Physics and Mathematical Statistics from the UFS, the University of Pretoria Natural Hazard Centre, Africa, as well as the Institute of Marine and Environmental Law from the University of Cape Town.

Unconventional oil and gas extraction, its related impacts and the management of this activity to ensure environmental protection, is a controversial issue in many countries worldwide. Since the extraction of oil and gas using unconventional techniques is an unprecedented activity in South Africa, the project focused on understanding this extraction process as well as hydraulic fracturing and identifying possible environmental and socio-economic impacts associated with this activity in the South African context. An understanding of the possible impacts could aid government during the development of policy aimed at protecting the environment.

The researchers subsequently identified indicators to develop an interactive vulnerability map for unconventional oil and gas in South Africa. The vulnerability map focuses on specific mapping themes, which include surface water, groundwater, vegetation, seismicity and socio-economics. In addition, the map provides information on the vulnerability of the specified mapping themes to unconventional gas extraction on a regional scale. This map is intended as a reconnaissance tool to inform decision-makers on areas where additional detail field work and assessments may be required. It can also be used during Environmental Impact Assessments and determining licensing conditions.

Lastly, a monitoring framework was developed, which describes monitoring requirements for specific entities – surface water, groundwater, vegetation, seismicity and socio-economics – for the different phases of unconventional oil and gas extraction. Such monitoring is an important part of environmental protection. It is especially important for South Africa to perform baseline monitoring before exploration starts to ensure that we will have reference conditions to identify what impact oil and gas extraction activities has on the biophysical and socio-economic environments.


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