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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

Universal Access and Universal Design approach align UFS with international standards
2015-08-11

Making mobility for students with disabilities easier, First Car Rental representatives hand over the brand new Toyota Quantum to Hestie Veitch, Head of CUADS.
Photo: Valentino Ndaba

The Centre for Universal Access and Disability Support (CUADS) launched successfully on 24 July 2015. The objective was “to make more people on campus and from the greater UFS community aware of the services that we provide, and to spread the word about Universal Access.”

“Since the center was founded in 2001, structural and systematic developments have occurred in order to create a welcoming and accessible learning environment that grants students opportunities to be successful in their academic endeavours. Thus, the Unit for Students with Disabilities (USD) has evolved into the CUADS in support of the social model of disability,” said Hetsie Veitch, former Head of the Centre.

Implementing the Universal Access and Universal Design approach has aligned the University of the Free State (UFS) with international standards.

Mingling with the experts

Vendors from across the country displayed their products, and offered demonstrations of functional gadgets and essentials at the event.

Marita Erlank from Sensory Solutions demonstrated how to operate the specialised scanner, which converts printed material to enlarged electronic text and audio, using the Open Book software.

Representing the university’s Sign Language Student Association were Carla Bester, Elrie de Toit and Tebogo Chabangu. To support Deaf Awareness Month (September), theyplan to dedicate a weekto facilitating free workshops for students not registered for the module.

David Greenland and his teamwere also present as part of a Wheelchair Appreciation Month campaign. On 1 September2015,the group of students will raise awareness of the daily challenges faced by mobility-impaired persons by spending the day in wheelchairs.

The day ended on a festive note, by courtesy of the First Car Hire Rental Company. A brand-new Toyota Quantum was handed over as a long-term rental, enabling students of the university to travel between campuses free of charge.

CUADS aims to continue transforming the UFS into a universally-accessible environment by collaborating with internal and external stakeholders. The launch marks a significant step towards Universal Access and Design.

 

 

 

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