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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 chemist invited by UNESCO to present lecture at World Science Forum in Budapest
2015-12-07

From the left are: Dr Jean-Paul Ngome Abiaga from UNESCO, France; Abdoulaye Ibrahim, also from UNESCO in France; and Truidie Venter, a young scientist from the Department of Chemistry at the UFS.
Photo: Supplied

Dr Truidie Venter, a young scientist from Inorganic Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry at the University of the Free State (UFS), returned recently from presenting a lecture at the 7th World Science Forum, held in Budapest, Hungary. She was one of the few young researchers world-wide who were invited to attend the forum.

In her capacity as a young female researcher from Africa, Truidie was invited by UNESCO to present her views on science in diplomacy at this event. Her talk focused on collaboration between researchers from different countries, and the challenges faced by young researchers in Africa, and served to initiate discussions between young researchers concerning international, interdisciplinary scientific cooperation.

The Science Forum, an international conference dedicated to science and knowledge, was held in Budapest from 4-7 November 2015. This interdisciplinary gathering is supported by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Council for Science (ICSU), and other partners, and is aimed at providing an occasion for representatives of science, politics, international organisations, industrial and financial decision makers, international science forums, and science academies to meet and exchange views.

More than nine hundred delegates from 108 countries took part in this event. The speakers included Her Royal Majesty Princess Sumaya Bint El Hassan, President of the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan, Dr Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, Prof Sir Peter Gluckman, first Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Prof Ene Ergma, former President of the Riigikogu (Estonian Parliament), and Ms Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology of South Africa.

At the conclusion of the forum, a declaration was accepted regarding the renewal of the scientific community’s commitment to the responsible and ethical use of scientific knowledge in addressing the grand challenges of humankind. This declaration addressed the headings of climate change, new sustainable development paths, disaster risk reduction, scientific advice for policies, international collaboration for capacity-building and mobilisation in the developing world, and balanced investment in science.

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