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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

Five Kovsies competing at National Championship for Physically Disabled
2016-03-18

Description: CUADS Tags: CUADS

Students from the University of the Free State (UFS) will compete at the Nedbank National Championship for the Physically Disabled in Bloemfontein from 21–23 March 2016. From back left is Johann van Heerden, Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the UFS, and Danie Breitenbach. Front from left is Louzanne Coetzee and Dineo Mokhosoa.
Photo: Jóhann Thormählen

Five students from the University of the Free State (UFS) will be taking part in the Nedbank National Championship for the Physically Disabled from 21–23 March 2016 in Bloemfontein. Dineo Mokhosoa, Juanré Jenkinson, Louzanne Coetzee, Danie Breitenbach and Johann van Heerden will represent the Free State at this event – one of the last opportunities to qualify for the Paralympic Games.

According to Martie Miranda, Head of the Center for Universal Access and Disability Support (CUADS) at the UFS, these students have shown they can achieve anything. “The Center for Universal Access and Disability Support is extremely proud of our students with disabilities who excel in sport and wish our students the best of luck with the national championships,” she said.“They confirm that ‘impossible’ is just a word.”

Most of the students already have excellent national and international rankings in their respective categories.

Mokhosoa (Cerebral Palsy), is ranked first in South Africa in discus, shot-put and long jump. This Social Work student also has two South African records in shot-put and long jump respectively behind her name. Jenkinson (Cerebral Palsy) is ranked eighth in the world in shot-put.

Coetzee (blind), who competes in the 800 m, 1 500 m and 5 000 m, is fifth in the world in the 800 m and ninth in the 1500 m. Breitenbach (blind) runs 400 m, 800 m and 1 500 m. Breitenbach, a Law student, is ranked fifth in the world in the 800 m.

Van Heerden (Cerebral Palsy) competes in swimming in the 50 m, 100 m and 200 m breaststroke. The Education student is ranked third in the 50 m, seventh in the 100 m and third in the 200 m in the world.

The Paralympic Games is taking place in September 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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