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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 Department of Physics offers unique learning experience with on-campus radio telescope
2015-12-14

Athanasius Ramaila, an Honours student in the Department of Physics, and Dr Brian van Soelen, a lecturer from the same department, in the laboratory where the radio telescope is housed in the new wing of the Physics Building on the Bloemfontein Campus of the UFS. The telescope will be used to expose graduate students to the basic techniques of radio astronomy.
Photo: Charl Devenish

The university this year added a four-storey wing to the existing Physics Building on the Bloemfontein Campus. The new development, which includes four lecture halls and four laboratories, complements other world-class facilities such as the X-ray photoelectron spectroscope and the scanning electron microscope.

A unique asset that distinguishes the UFS Department of Physics from other similar institutions, is the Boyden Observatory situated approximately 27 km northeast of Bloemfontein. The observatory houses a powerful 1.5 m optical telescope, and several smaller, but well equipped telescopes.

According to Pieter Meintjes, Professor in the Department of Physics, the observatory has acquired a new addition - a 0.5 m optical telescope donated by the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) to the UFS Astrophysics Group. This optical telescope is one of two powerful optical telescopes used to introduce students to techniques such as photometry and spectroscopy.

“The telescope at Boyden forms an integral part of the Department of Physic’s student training and research programme. Because the UFS is the only university in South Africa operating such a facility, and one of only a few globally, Astrophysics students at the UFS have the unique privilege of having unrestricted access to these telescopes for their MSc and PhD studies,” says Prof Meintjes. In addition, the department has also built a radio telescope as part of a post-graduate student project. The telescope, housed in the new wing of the Physics Building at the Bloemfontein Campus of the UFS, will be used to expose graduate students to the basic techniques of radio astronomy, especially in light of the fact that the SKA is nascent. Prof Meintjes would like to act proactively by grounding his students in the relevant techniques of radio astronomy. The telescope will be used to introduce students to the manner in which radio flux calibrations are performed in order to determine the energy output of an emitting source.

At undergraduate level, the radio telescope will be used, together with optical telescopes in the Astrophysics laboratory, to place students at a high baseline regarding the level of multi-wavelength astrophysics training received at the UFS.

Third-year and Honours students will also have the opportunity of practical training in a research laboratory with 15 computers. The laboratory is equipped with software used to reduce and analyse multi-wavelength data.

“My goal is for the UFS to become the major centre of multi-wavelength astrophysics in South Africa and a key role player in the international arena. To be able to do this, our training should be world class,” Prof Meintjes said.

Aided by its world-class facilities and research, the Department of Physics is competing with the best in the world. Research-wise, a group from the Department of Physics is intensively involved with the SKA Project (Square Kilometre Array), with 3 000 dishes reaching from Carnavon in the Karoo to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. According to Prof Meintjes, many detailed studies can be conducted with the SKA system of sources, showing major eruptions and mass effluent from the systems. Athanasius Ramaila, a BSc Honours student in Astrophysics at the UFS, has also received a two-year SKA internship, where he will be engaged in the SKA software engineering programme to help with developing software for the telescope.

The UFS Astrophysics Group is focusing on the multi-wavelength study of high-energy astrophysics sources. “This multi-wavelength approach to astrophysics is in line with the recent announcement by government that multi wavelength astrophysics will be the main focus for astrophysics research in South Africa. It is also a very important focus for research in the international arena, as can be seen from the large number of international conferences having a multi-wavelength character,” Prof Meintjes said.


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