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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

University gets support to improve student success
2014-11-26

From the left are: Prof Francois Strydom (Director: Academic - Centre for Teaching and Learning at the UFS), Mr Rip Rapson (Chief Executive Officer, Kresge Foundation), Dr Marcus Ingram (UFS Director for Institutional Advancement) and Mr Bill Moses (Programme Director for the Kresge Foundation's Education Programme).
Photo: Hannes Pieterse

The Kresge Foundation has awarded $400 000 (about R4 million) to the University of the Free State (UFS) to increase student success through improved data analysis.

This four-year grant, as part of Kresge’s Siyaphumelela initiative, was recently announced by Mr Rip Rapson, Kresge’s President and Chief Executive Officer. This announcement was made at a symposium on South African higher education and philanthropy in Cape Town.

“Universities across South Africa are grappling with how to improve persistence and graduation rates for their black students in particular,” Mr Rapson said. “These universities will work together with the South African Institute for Distance Education to develop their data analytics capacity to find and share solutions and interventions based on solid information to improve student success.”

The UFS was only one of four universities receiving funding from Kresge. The other universities include the Nelson Mandela metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the University of Pretoria.

The grants will help the universities build their capacities to use data to better integrate institutional research, information communication technology, academic development, student services and academic departments. Beyond the improvements sought for the UFS, Kresge hopes to see new approaches to data become mainstream for higher education in South Africa.

The Siyaphumelela initiative provides four years of institutional support and hope to create a community of practice that learns lessons that may benefit not only individual institutions and the cohort, but also potentially all of South African higher education.

Dr Lis Lange, Vice-Rector: Academic at the UFS, said improving student successes is a university goal that operates in the interface between the Human and Academic Projects of the university.

“We are delighted to be part of an initiative that is going to help us develop greater capability for data analytics and deeper integration between data and teaching and learning practices; and, at the same time, will bring the Centre for Teaching and Learning, the Directorate for Institutional Research and Academic Planning (DIRAP) and the faculties into a closer cooperation.”

Over the past four years donor income to the UFS increased considerably, both from governmental sources, trusts and foundations. By the end of 2013, governmental funding increased from about R5 million in 2011 to over R35 million. Funding by trusts and foundations increased from R5 million in 2011 to over R15 million in 2013. A general increase of 25% in funding is expected for 2014.

Dr Marcus Ingram, UFS Director for Institutional Advancement, says as the UFS begins to settle into a refined academic identity, the Department for Institutional Advancement intends to support these efforts by helping to facilitate the telling of a more integrated narrative to the university’s friends, prospects and donors.

 

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