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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

Louzanne Coetzee breaks 16-year-old world record
2016-03-24

Description: Louzanne Coetzee kampioen Tags: Louzanne Coetzee kampioen

Louzanne Coetzee (left) running the 5 000 m at the Nedbank National Championships at the Free State Athletics stadium with her guide, Khotatso Mokone (right)
Photo: Celeste Klopper Photography

Whether it’s the 5 000 m or the 1 500 m, Louzanne Coetzee is breaking records in all her races. Fans of the University of the Free State (UFS) student were elated at her triumph with the 5 000 m T11 world record at the Nedbank National Championships for the Physically Disabled on Wednesday 23 March 2016.

The record, which has stood for 16 years, was shattered by Coetzee’s stellar 19:17.06 performance. Sigita Markeviciene’s long-standing mark of 20:05.81, set at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, was bettered by 48.75 seconds when Coetzee and her guide, Khotatso Mokone, sprinted hand in hand past the finish line. 

Coetzee’s coach is as elated as the world-class athlete’s fans over her officially becoming the first totally blind female to clock sub-20 minute in the 5 000 m. "I am proud and grateful. She earned it through and through. She worked hard for this,” said Rufus Botha.

The experience was a surreal one for Coetzee. “It was unreal but it is exciting to be the fastest in Africa and the world. I could not have done it without the support system that I have,” she said.

"I have seldom met a student with the character and humanity of Louzanne Coetzee; she represents the best of campus and country, and is a stunning example of what we canal  achieve despite the great challenges of the present," said Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the UFS.

New African record holder

Two days before breaking the 5 000 m world record, Coetzee set a new African record in the 1 500 m. She lowered the mark from 5:27:21 to 5:18:44, which placed her at the number nine spot in the world.

On Friday 18 March 2016 Coetzee had broken her own South African record when she ran 5 000 m in less than 20 minutes at the Free State Championships. However, the race is not an official (International Paralympic Committee) meeting, and hence remains unofficial.

What’s next?


The gold medallist is currently preparing for the Athletics Grand Prix to be held in Switzerland in May for which she is raising funds. If she is selected by SASCOC (South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee), her next stop is the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, which is just six months away.

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