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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

Graduates challenged to fulfil their leadership obligations
2015-12-14



Procession frontline: seen making their way to the graduation ceremony are from left: Dr Khotso Mokhele (Chancellor of the UFS), Prof Busisiwe Bhengu (Chairperson of the South African Nursing Council), and Prof Jonathan Jansen (Vice-Chancellor of the UFS).
Photo: Johan Roux

The time for one-dimensional discourse was over, said Professor Busisiwe Bhengu, the guest speaker at this year’s Summer Graduation. Practical implementation of change was the step forward in forging the path into a brighter South Africa future.

During both the morning and afternoon ceremonies held at the University of the Free State (UFS) Bloemfontein Campus on 10 December 2015, the Chairperson of the South African Nursing Council, and Associate Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, challenged the newly-graduated alumni to rise to the occasion, and be a part of the solution to our country’s diverse challenges.

Some of the pervasive hardships she highlighted were human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and tuberculosis (TB), the escalating number of orphans and child-headed households, and the human resource shortages resulting from an ageing generation which is exiting the employment system through retirement.

Prior to dissolving the congregations, Dr Khotso Mokhele, the Chancellor of the UFS, said: “I was caught by the leadership challenge she [Prof Bhengu] threw out at the graduates because we indeed need courageous, creative and innovative leaders moving forward,” he said.

Dr Mokhele touched on South Africa’s dwindling economy, the leadership issues engulfing the government currently, the #FeesMustFall movement, and how students led a difficult dialogue and dictated the country’s trajectory as regards education, as well as the water scarcity we are facing. In closing, he warned that the graduates had lost the luxury of feeling led because of the fact that they now have a leadership obligation to fulfil.

Highlights of the day

Amongst 102 graduates from the UFS School of Medicine were two brothers from the Free State, Johann and Rudi Westraad who followed each other’s passion to become doctors.

Deputy Registrar at the UFS, Elna Van Pletzen, graduated with a Master’s in Higher Education Studies. Her thesis titled ”The implications of current legislative changes for academic freedom and institutional autonomy of South African higher education institutions”, focused on the amendment of Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Act of 2012. In it, she tackled the subjects of academic freedom and the relationship between government and higher education institutions. Coincidently, her research was produced at a time when the subject of university autonomy was on the national agenda.

The occasion was not only a celebration of the students; teachers were also recognised for their dedication to quality education. Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the UFS congratulated Dr Louise van den Berg (Faculty of Health Sciences) as well as Naquita Fernandes and Salomien Boshoff (both from the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences) for their outstanding achievements. At a recent ceremony, Dr Van den Berg received the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for an individual teacher, and the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for the best teaching team was presented to Fernandes and Boshoff.

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