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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

UFS celebrates Kagiso Trust’s 30 years of commitment to the empowerment of impoverished communities
2015-07-15

From the left are: MEC Tate Makgoe, Free State Department of Education; Busi Tshabalala, Thabo Mofutsanyana Education District Director; Dean Zwo Nevhutalu,  Kagiso Trust Trustee  and UFS Director of Community Engagement, Bishop, Billy Ramahlele.
Photo: ?Thabo Kessah

Future sustainable partnerships in education will survive only if all partners are committed, honest, and transparent.

This is the view expressed by the Free State MEC for Education and UFS Council member, Tate Makgoe, during the panel discussion at the Qwaqwa Campus of the University of the Free State celebrating Kagiso Trust’s 30 years of commitment to the empowerment of impoverished communities. The topic was “The future partnership models for education in Africa”.

“Over the years, the partnership between the Free State Department of Education, the UFS, and Kagiso Trust has helped to expose the potential in our mainly rural children in the Qwaqwa area of the Thabo Mofutsanyana district,” said Makgoe.

”When we started in 2009, the matric pass rate in the district was 64%, and this rose to 87% in 2014. In Qwaqwa alone, we have managed to build 51 computer and 26 physical sciences laboratories. It was these laboratories that enabled the Free State to be the best performing province in the Physical Sciences in 2013,” added Makgoe.

“None of these achievements would have been possible if all the partners had not been committed to the course. Partnerships built on honesty and transparency are the best model, which we hope to export to other provinces and, indeed, countries,” Makgoe said.

Representing the UFS on the panel was the Director of Community Engagement, Bishop Billy Ramahlele, who added that collaborations can be successful only if the leadership was exemplary.

“As the university, we have had many collaboration with various government departments, and great strides have been achieved only with the Department of Education under the leadership of MEC Makgoe,” said Ramahlele.

”With the MEC on board, the UFS ended up dedicating its South Campus in Bloemfontein to supporting Free State schools. We now have 70 schools that benefit from live television broadcasts of lessons by some of our outstanding academics. This also enables our best academics to make a valued contribution to empowering our teachers. It also allows the university to maximise scarce resources to attain social cohesion,” he said.

In his remarks, Kagiso Trust Trustee, Dean Zwo Nevhutalu, said that Kagiso Trust was looking forward to continue working with its partners to maximise outcomes through limited resources.

“Kagiso Trust will continue to work with the poor and the marginalised and there is no better partner than the government itself. The government provides basic services, and education is one of them. This allows us to be innovative and not just dump books and equipment at schools because we are forced to by our corporate social investment obligations. Therefore, we challenge the government also to be innovative in building a sustainable future partnership model in education,” he said.

Among the dignitaries attending the panel discussion were Kagiso Trust Chairman, Dr Frank Chikane, and the late Dr Beyers Naude’s family.

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