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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

Kovsies hoist the rainbow flag to show support for International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia
2015-05-25

Photo: Lihlumelo Toyana

Kovsies reaffirm diverse expressions of love  (Facebook video clip)

Transformation is not about black or white anymore, it's about including different diversities (Facebook video clip)

 

 

Violence and discrimination against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) community is rife in South Africa. Advancing the spirit of the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Human Project, Out@Kovsies and the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice (IRSJ) showed their true colours by hoisting the rainbow flag in front of the Main Building on the Bloemfontein Campus.

International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia

This event was in anticipation of International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia celebrated on Sunday 17 May 2015. People across the world, regardless of their sexual orientation, come together annually on this day in support of the LGBTI community. This year, Kovsies became part of that global community when, for the first time in history, the rainbow flag –  a popular symbol of LGBTI pride – fluttered high over the Red Square.
 
Human embrace

Committed to the human embrace, this event was another decisive step towards true transformation. “Transformation is not about black or white anymore,” said Zanele Thela, coordinator and guardian of Out@Kovsies, during the event. “It’s about including different diversities, different sexual orientations.”

Laura-Jane Watkins, research assistant at the IRSJ, said that this day “reflects our attitude as a collective community to embrace difference. Today is a day that we reaffirm diverse expressions of love beyond societal perceptions of gender as an inherent human need and right. Let us now stand together as a student community to promote the value of humanness.”

Rainbow flag

The rainbow flag, also fondly known as the freedom flag, was designed by civil rights activist, Gilbert Baker, and was hoisted publically on 25 June 1978. The modern version of the flag consists of six colours, each with a specific meaning. Red stands for life, orange for healing, yellow depicts sunlight, green stands for nature, blue for serenity, and violet for spirit.

The hope that Thela holds is for everyone to be free to express themselves and their love for one another, because “that’s the one thing we all have in common: love”.

 

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