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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 enhances Geography in schools
2015-05-11

The Green Box

The Department of Geography at the University of the Free State (UFS), in association with the Society of South African Geographers (SSAG), is doing their part in providing curriculum support to schools. Dr Ruth Massey and Anneri Pretorius are the project managers of Green Box, an initiative to advance Geography in schools.

The Green Box supports the intermediate phase of schooling (Grades 4, 5, 6). According to Dr Massey, the worksheets and activities provided in the Green Box are aligned with the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) and the new curriculum. “These worksheets are divided into three themes: map work, physical Geography, and human Geography.

“Map work includes symbols and keys, grid references, and compass work whilst physical Geography focuses on water and waste, biodiversity and conservation, and weather and climate issues. The human Geography theme has a focus on population, rural and urban development, migration, food and farming, and transport and trade,” she said.

Each worksheet has a fact sheet section which teaches theory on the specific topic (linked to the curriculum), an activity section (all resources needed for these activities are provided in the box), and a ‘take it home’ section for further learning and practice at home.

The Green Box is a recycled plastic crate that comprises worksheets, training materials, visual aids, and resources for teaching, learning, and active engagement in Geography classes.

Also included in the box are a felt story board and characters (that link with the worksheet activities), the ‘Climate Change memory game’ (which enhances learner’s memory capabilities and teaches various climate change facts) and the ‘Sustainable Development puzzle game’ (which teaches about the social, biophysical, economic, and political elements of Sustainable Development, and how they overlap).

“All items in the box are locally sourced, robust, and without copyright,” said Dr Massey.

The project is focusing on 10 under-resourced schools in the Bloemfontein area. Each school has received three boxes (one for each grade of the Intermediate Phase).

Dr Massey said: “This box is to be shared among the teachers. The Green Boxes were distributed at a training and information workshop held at three central schools in the various districts. These workshops introduced the teachers to the contents of their box, and provided basic training on the worksheets and the activities provided.”

“The schools will be joined up with ‘Box Buddies’ at more resourced schools in Bloemfontein. These buddy schools will assist in support and in replenishing the box’s stationery, etc. when needed.”

“Monitoring and evaluation will take place for six months after the boxes have been distributed. This will ensure support to, and the sustainability of, the project.” The Green Box project was made possible through a grant from the Society of South African Geographers (SSAG).

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