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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 Council unanimously approves two senior appointments
2014-11-24

The Council of the University of the Free State (UFS) unanimously approved the appointment of Dr Lis Lange as Vice-Rector: Academic and Prof Sechaba Mahlomaholo as Dean: Education during its meeting on Friday 21 November 2014.

Dr Lis Lange is currently Acting Vice-Rector: Academic at the University of the Free State, where she holds a substantive position as Senior Director heading the Directorate for Institutional Research and Academic Planning (DIRAP). Prof Mahlomaholo is Head of the School of Mathematics, Natural Sciences and Technology Education at the UFS.

“These are two exceptional and trusted academics with international stature and I am delighted to welcome them as part of the senior leadership of the UFS. Dr Lange’s skills set pertaining to academic management and quality assurance make her one of only a few people with similar skills in the country, while Prof Mahlomaholo is a leading expert in community-based education,” says Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the UFS.

Dr Lange joined the UFS in 2011. Before this, she was the Executive Director (2006-2010) of the Higher Education Quality Committee of the Council of Higher Education (CHE), and Acting CEO of the same organisation between August 2007 and April 2008. She has been involved in the development and implementation of science and technology and higher education policy in South Africa for a decade and a half, working in different capacities in the Human Sciences Research Council, the National Research Foundation and the Council on Higher Education. Dr Lange has served as a member of the board of the International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) and has participated in several international initiatives on quality assurance. She is the editor of an academic journal focused on the humanities, Acta Academica.

She has undertaken research and published in the fields of history, higher education and quality assurance. Her major concern in both research and practice is the role of higher education in the development of democratic societies, based on social justice. Dr Lange studied in Argentina, Mexico and South Africa, where she obtained a PhD in South African history from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Prof Mahlomaholo is a graduate of the Universities of the North, Western Cape and Harvard University in the United States. He is a National Research Foundation (NRF)-rated Professor of Education.

Before joining the UFS, he worked at six other universities where he was Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Education (UNIN-QwaQwa), Head of Professional Education (Vista University), Professor and Director of Research and Postgraduate Studies (MEDUNSA), Professor and Director of Curriculum Development (Central University of Technology), and Research Professor (North-West University).

His research interests lie in designing strategies mounted on Bricolage, Participatory Action Research and Critical Emancipatory Research as theoretical bases. He leads the NRF-sponsored project on the creation of Sustainable Learning Environments in schools. In this Participatory Action Research project, 28 PhD and 22 MEd students participate under the guidance of 15 academics. The project has relationships with the Global Network project (St Petersburg University), the Post-Colonial Education project (West Indies University) and the Discourse, Power, Resistance project (Plymouth University and now University of London). He has served as guest editor in the following ISI-indexed, peer-reviewed and accredited journals: the South African Journal of Higher Education (2010 and 2014), the South African Journal of Education (2011), Communitas (2012), the Journal of New Generation Sciences (2012), the Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa (2013) and the Journal of Education Studies (2013).

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