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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

Former CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation receives an honorary doctorate from the UFS
2015-07-08

Dr John Samuel.
Photo: Johan Roux

“Having spent the most of my life in public service, it is a great pleasure to receive recognition from the University of the Free State (UFS) for the work that I have done,” Dr John Samuel said in his acceptance speech at this year’s Winter Graduation, where an honorary degree was conferred on him.

The renowned educationalist’s remarkable merit was recognised by the Faculty of Education in the Thursday 2 July 2015 graduation ceremony. Dr Samuel was awarded the honorary doctorate for his enormous role as a national and international strategist in the education system.

The early 1960s proved to be a prelude to Dr Samuel’s lifelong journey as a teacher, policy analyst, administrator, and advisor. In addition to South Africa, he has served with compassion in various countries including Zambia, Ghana, Nigeria, and the USA.

In the dawn of South Africa’s democracy, Dr Samuel served as Head of the Education desk, developing new policies for the field of education and training. One of his many pivotal achievements has been serving the Nelson Mandela Foundation as Chief Executive Officer. Furthermore, South African’s Department of Education has reaped the benefit of appointing him as the Deputy Director-General.

From 1998 to 2000, Dr Samuel was the Senior Programme Director of the WK Kellogg Foundation in the USA.

The Chief Executive Chairman of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls inspired graduates with warm words. “Graduation is a special time for everyone. It is now the time to convert what we have learnt into useful action. We need every pair of hands to help and inspire, and instill hope,” he said.

Rewarding the active role of a national and global leader in education symbolises the university’s commitment to public service, academic excellence, and transformation.


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