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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

Kovsie gold medalist defeats Olympic champion
2015-07-07

Wayde van Niekerk and Kirani James
Photo: deuxHD DIRECT

Once again, Kovsie Wayde van Niekerk has made history by defeating the London 2012 Olympic Games champion, Kirani James, of Grenada in the Caribbean. 

On 4 July 2015, he surged 0.79 seconds ahead of Kirani in his  number five lane, becoming the first African to cover 400m in less than 44 seconds. The Kovsie student won the race at 43.96, occupying 10th place on the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Diamond League all-time list.

Kovsies were still celebrating the gold medalist’s South African record-setting time of 44.24 on 13 June 2015, when he dominated the Diamond League meeting. At the previous race in New York, Van Niekerk improved on his own national record of 44.38. With an impressive dash to the finish line at that particular event, he surpassed Christopher Brown’s 400m record.

In addition to the country’s record, Van Niekerk made his name as one of the continent’s record-breakers. On 7 June 2015, he broke the 1986 African 300m record. Van Niekerk replaced Ivorian Gabriel Tiacoh’s best time of 31.74 with a 31.63 championship win at the Birmingham Diamond League meeting.  Simultaneously, he bettered Morné Nagel’s 2006 South African national record.

Following this outstanding performance, he was positioned in 10th place on the world list in the men’s 300m.

Currently, Van Niekerk is preparing for the 14 July 2015 Diamond League meeting to be held in Lucerne, Switzerland. His last Lucerne race was in 2014 where he clocked 20.19 in the men’s 200m. Based on his recent successes, Van Niekerk seems to have launched himself on a history-making spree, and may well set a new personal best.

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