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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

Fire as a management tool questionable in arid and semi-arid grassland areas
2015-03-24

Wild fire in the grassland
Photo: Supplied


The influence of fire on the ecosystem in the higher rainfall ‘‘sour’’ grassland areas of southern Africa has been well established. However, less information is available for arid and semi-arid ‘‘sweet’’ grassland areas, says Prof Hennie Snyman, Professor in the Department of Animal, Wildlife, and Grassland Sciences, about his research on the short-term impact of fire on the productivity of grasslands in semi-arid areas.

Sour and sweet grassland areas can be defined as receiving either higher or lower than approximately 600 mm of rainfall respectively. In quantifying the short-term impact of fire on the productivity of grasslands in semi-arid areas, a South African case study (experimental plot data) was investigated.

“Burned grassland can take at least two full growing seasons to recover in terms of above- and below-ground plant production and of water-use efficiency (WUE). The initial advantage in quality (crude protein) accompanying fire does not neutralise the reduction in half of the above-ground production and poor WUE occurring in the first season following the fire.

“The below-ground growth is more sensitive to burning than above-ground growth. Seasonal above-ground production loss to fire, which is a function of the amount and distribution of rainfall, can vary between 238 and 444 kg ha -1 for semi-arid grasslands. The importance of correct timing in the utilisation of burned semi-arid grassland, with respect to sustained high production, cannot be overemphasised,” said Prof Snyman.

In arid and semi-arid grassland areas, fire as a management tool is questionable if there is no specific purpose for it, as it can increase ecological and financial risk management in the short term.

Prof Snyman said: “More research is needed to quantify the impact of runaway fires on both productivity and soil properties, in terms of different seasonal climatic variations. The information to date may already serve as valuable guidelines regarding grassland productivity losses in semi-arid areas. These results can also provide a guideline in claims arising from unforeseen fires, in which thousands of rands can be involved, and which are often based on unscientific evidence.”

For more information or enquiries contact news@ufs.ac.za

 

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