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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

Water research aids decision making on national level
2015-05-25

Photo: Leonie Bolleurs

With water being a valuable and scarce resource in the central regions of South Africa, it is no wonder that the UFS has large interdisciplinary research projects focusing on the conservation of water, as well as the sustainable use of this essential element.

The hydropedology research of Prof Pieter le Roux from the Department of Soil, Crop and Climate Sciences and his team at the UFS focuses on Blue water. Blue water is of critical importance to global health as it is cleared by the soil and stored underground for slow release in marshes, rivers, and deep groundwater. The release of this water bridges the droughts between showers and rain seasons and can stretch over several months and even years. The principles established by Prof Le Roux, now finds application in ecohydrology, urban hydrology, forestry hydrology, and hydrological modelling.

The Department of Agricultural Economics is busy with three research projects for the Water Research Commission of South Africa, with an estimated total budget of R7 million. Prof Henry Jordaan from this department is conducting research on the water footprint of selected field and forage crops, and the food products derived from these crops. The aim is to assess the impact of producing the food products on the scarce freshwater resource to inform policy makers, water managers and water users towards the sustainable use of freshwater for food production.

With his research, Prof Bennie Grové, also from this department, focuses on economically optimising water and electricity use in irrigated agriculture. The first project aims to optimise the adoption of technology for irrigation practices and irrigation system should water allocations to farmers were to be decreased in a catchment because of insufficient freshwater supplies to meet the increasing demand due to the requirements of population growth, economic development and the environment.

In another project, Prof Grové aims to economically evaluate alternative electricity management strategies such as optimally designed irrigation systems and the adoption of new technology to mitigate the substantial increase in electricity costs that puts the profitability of irrigation farming under severe pressure.

Marinda Avenant and her team in the Centre for Environmental Management (CEM), has been involved in the biomonitoring of the Free State rivers, including the Caledon, Modder Riet and part of the Orange River, since 1999. Researchers from the CEM regularly measures the present state of the water quality, algae, riparian vegetation, macro-invertebrates and fish communities in these rivers in order to detect degradation in ecosystem integrity (health).

The CEM has recently completed a project where an interactive vulnerability map and screening-level monitoring protocol for assessing the potential environmental impact of unconventional gas mining by means of hydraulic fracturing was developed. These tools will aid decision making at national level by providing information on the environment’s vulnerability to unconventional gas mining.

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