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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

First-years at South Campus step into a bright future
2015-02-05

Photo: Stefan Lotter

This is the first step to a bright future.

This was the resounding message that welcomed first-year students to the South Campus. “Remember,” Tshegofatso Setilo, Manager of the University Preparation Programme said, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” But please do not get discouraged on your way, she urged, because “this is your first step to a bright future.

In his welcoming message, Prof Nicky Morgan, Vice-Rector: Operations at the UFS referred to the South Campus as the giant of the south. “This is one of the trailblazing campuses of the university,” he said. “No doubt what you’ll experience on this campus, you’ll never forget.”

This year, the South Campus boasts with 1 200 first-year students taking part in our University Preparation and Extended Programmes. These programmes allow students – whose matric marks did not reach the required total – the opportunity to study at the University of the Free State (UFS). The result? An astounding rise in pass rates. Some of the students on the South Campus outperform their peers studying at the Bloemfontein Campus, Prof Morgan remarked.

“You’ve got it in yourself. You’ve got the potential to unleash yourself on the world,” Prof Morgan said. You do not always realise the value of something that has come your way, he said. So, every moment you get an opportunity, he advised, use it to shape your future.

Addressing the newcomers’ fears, Prof Morgan urged each student to open themselves to the good and new experiences waiting for them. “When you find yourself in a new space, it always begins with you,” he said. Learn to understand how to live in harmony in different spaces.

Prof Morgan placed great emphasis on his closing remark: “At university, the more questions you seek to have answered – they’re worth more than the answers you have.”

 

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