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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

TEDxUFS conference - the highlight of the university’s innovative calendar
2015-08-11


Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance with co-organisers of TEDxUFS Bonginkosi Leeuw and Lerothodi Molete after his inspirational talk at the event.
Photo: Curtis Nhlamulo Mashimbye

This year’s TEDxUFS speaker lineup persuaded the audience unanimously to question the nature of reality. The Albert Wessels Auditorium on the Bloemfontein Campus was packed with about 200 attendees on Saturday 1 August 2015.

Speakers shared a multiplicity of profound theories and inquisitions, challenging society in general to think out of the box. Melody Mentz, Gil Oved, Ricardo Peach, Pamela Nomvete, Pepe Marais, Mmusi Maimane, Brian Kally, Pieter Geldenhuys, Philippa Tumubweinee, Gareth Cliff, and Angelo Mockie took on to the stage to tackle multidisciplinary concepts as part of the broad ‘Ask Why’ theme.

Innovation mouthpieces share their worldview

Pieter Geldenhuys, the internationally-renowned futurist and Director of the Institute for Technology Strategy, and Innovation proposed that we change our mindsets by neglecting predictability. “We need to look at different models to understand the world around us,” he said. He challenged the linear and familiar ways humans make sense of the universe.

Speaking to the dire need for transformation, Philippa Tumubweinee suggested that university spaces merge with the communities they serve in terms of policies, social atmosphere, and physical structure. Tumubweinee is a senior Lecturer at the Department of Architecture at our university, and co-Founder and Director of Izuba In Africa architects.

“Only we can give permission to be intimidated; so don’t give in,” said Brian Kally, the CEO of Arrow Logistics (Pty) Ltd. Kally underscored the power of believing in our individual ideas.

Guidelines from TEDxUFS organisers

Bonginkosi Leeuw: “If you take your brainchild and implement it, and make it a reality, that’s when you can achieve great things, not before that.”

Lerothodi Molete: “You should ask questions; the moment you ask the question you will understand more.”

Real-time social media feedback

These are some of the comments audience members published on Twitter at the event:

IG: mispertanzy ?@MiesperTanzy  Aug 1

A huge shout-out to @TEDxUFS for hosting such a great conference!The team has really made the event an unmissable one on the UFS calendar.

Celebrabitur? ?@HatsuMphatsoe  Aug 1

Proximity that allows us to experience our broader society. Truly engaged by Philippa Tumbweinee's talk! @TEDxUFS

TEDxJohannesburg ?@TEDxJoburg  Aug 1

A big shoutout to @TEDxUFS from for a fantastic event. Wish we were there.

RicardoPeach ?@ricardopeach  Aug 1

Africa is rich with potential  #TEDXUFS @MmusiMaimane Yes!

 

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