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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

Leadership and responsible citizenship: key themes at the Global Leadership Summit
2015-07-09

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Leadership and responsible citizenship have been the main topics of discussion at the Global Leadership Summit which started on 5 July at the UFS Campus in Bloemfontein, and will continue until 17 July. More than 103 international delegates from various universities in Asia, the United States, and Europe, as well as 40 student delegates from the University of the Free State, are attending.

Kick-starting the summit talks was Prof Joel Samoff (Stanford University) who led discussions on transformation in institutions around the world. “Transformation is a constantly-changing interaction.  It is not a single objective, but a process, “ he said. This was followed by a robust panel discussion with student leaders of the UFS and those from James Madison University, Mount Holyoke College, and Rutgers University, who described the journey of transformation at their various universities.  “Young people are leading themselves in a different way, the context of the society we live in has changed,” said a UFS Student.

Keynote speaker, Zelda la Grange, gave an account of her experiences and the colourful journey of discovery of a “different” South Africa, working with President Nelson Mandela for 19 years, a journey that is the subject of  her book, “Good Morning Mr Mandela “. Under the theme “Breathing the same air: A metaphor for human solidarity, Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Senior Research Professor in Trauma, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation Studies led a talk with Candice Mama, the daughter of slain anti-apartheid activist, Gelnack Masilo Mama, one of the victims of the former hit squad commander, Eugene de Kok. Candice inspired the audience with her philosophy on life and letting go of trauma: “Forgiveness is a process, and one needs to forgive to be able to be liberated from anger and bitterness,” she said.

Dr Lis Lange, Vice Rector: Academic, UFS spoke of citizenship and freedom, focusing on the responsibility that humans have to create ethical, positive, and meaningful interaction in their daily lives and in their societies across the globe.

As part of the programme, delegates will visit the Qwaqwa Campus on 10 July 2015, where they will interact with the leadership of the campus, its staff, and students, and enjoy an arts and cultural experience of the Eastern Free State.  The summit will end with a visit to various sites in Bloemfontein, where delegates will engage in community-based outreach activities in disadvantaged communities around the city. 

UFS to host second Global Leadership Summit

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