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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

Heidedal-based foundation and UFS host inaugural music concert
2015-12-04

ROC children rock in marimba music
Photo: Valentino Ndaba

Reach Our Community (ROC) Foundation in conjunction with the University of the Free State’s Odeion School of Music (OSM) held its first-ever music concert last month. Children who form part of the foundation’s Afterschool Care programme showed their impressive music skills to their parents and guardians in attendance.

ROC provides support to orphaned and vulnerable children from early childhood through to adolescence in the Heidedal community in Bloemfontein. The foundation strives to address the challenges resulting from factors such as poverty, unemployment, HIV/Aids, single parenting, lack of guardianship, and physical and sexual abuse. In the Afterschool Care programme, the children engage in educational, cultural, and recreational activities.

Going the extra mile

Since 2008, the UFS has successfully partnered with ROC through service learning and community engagement in which students from across all seven faculties participate. Two Music Education and Practice students from the OSM took it upon themselves to continue after their curriculum requirements were met.

Amy Viljoen- now a final-year BMus student, together with fellow student, Petre du Plessis, and their lecturer and programme coordinator, Gerda Pretorius, established the music class project in Heidedal in 2014. The students embarked on weekly trips to ROC, and would spend an hour working on the recorders and marimbas with children from ROC.

This year, Viljoen and Kara-Lynn Crankshaw, a final-year BA Music student, spent eleven months teaching the children music practice and theory, culminating in a concert that both the community and students can be proud of.

“I wanted to do something that was not only meant for educational purposes, but to give back to the community,” said Viljoen.

After having to gather extra chairs because of the influx of community members at the ROC hall, the founder, Patrick Kaars, said he had not expected such a turn-out. “It exceeded my expectations, and it was a dream come true. It meant so much to the children to be exposed to music, and to explore their own capabilities and talents.”

More children will learn how to play other instruments. Currently, the instruments used for the children’s training were purchased second-hand in order to cut costs. New music education specialists, who will join the programme in 2016, will also work with Pretorius to gather additional equipment, and compile learning material.

Kaars is also thrilled about the potential expansion to the music group, now that the concert has become an annual event. The OSM is also in the process of establishing a Centre for Music Development at ROC.

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