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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 establishes a Postgraduate office
2007-07-18

The University of the Free State (UFS) will establish a postgraduate office that will serve as a one-stop service for the co-ordination of academic support services for postgraduate students.

According to the Director: Research Development at the UFS, Prof Frans Swanepoel, the primary purpose of the Postgraduate Office is to provide co-ordination and support services for postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows, as well as academic staff across the University.

“Guided by values such as intellectual inquiry, innovation, collegiality, integrity and efficiency, the Postgraduate Office will seek to foster a challenging, inclusive and supportive environment for postgraduate teaching, learning, research and scholarship; and will strive to engage students in the vibrant life of a research university”, Prof Swanepoel said.

All sectors of the University, namely students, faculties and staff, stand to benefit from the establishment of this office. Amongst other benefits for these sectors, postgraduate students and postdoctoral research fellows will have their interests promoted in synergy with faculty and departmental facilities. On the other hand, the office will provide a critical resource to the faculties in the form of a single database of postgraduate students, postgraduate topics, supervisors and funding opportunities. Furthermore, it will serve as a useful resource and base for training and information for younger and less experienced staff members.

The establishment of this office will be undertaken in two phases. The first phase will focus on the most critical areas that will make an immediate impact and the second phase on those areas that are not as urgent.

Areas that will be prioritised include the appointment of a manager and co-ordination of stakeholders, the provision of information and communication, useful resources for the UFS, policy administration and monitoring, postgraduate supervisors’ facilitation, recruitment activities, advice and referral, and postgraduate scholarship and bursary management.

The less urgent components of the office will be the development and implementation of academic and professional support programmes, the formation of a research information commons to create an integrated learning environment for postgraduate students, and the development of a postgraduate association or a postgraduate students’ liaison committee to provide a recognised channel of communication between postgraduate students and the University authorities.

The Postgraduate Office will form a vital component of the Directorate Research Development (DRD) at the UFS because of its experience and a noteworthy track record with regard to a facilitative and co-ordinating role that would be essential for the office.

“Establishing the Postgraduate Office as part of the Directorate would give the Centre the necessary links to the research-related issues that are important to most of the postgraduate students at the UFS. Of essential importance will be the linkages with the full spectrum of Strategic Clusters”, Prof Swanepoel explained.

“An important component of the Postgraduate Office will be related to international students and international opportunities for UFS postgraduate students. As the Office for Internationalisation has similarly been placed within the Directorate, the work of the Postgraduate Office will be facilitated by similar placement within the same Directorate”, he concluded.

Media release
Issued by: Mangaliso Radebe
Assistant Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2828
Cell: 078 460 3320
E-mail: radebemt.stg@mail.ufs.ac.za  
18 July 2007
 

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