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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

Meet our Council: Kgotso Schoeman - I’m not afraid of challenges
2016-04-21

Description: Kgotso Schoeman  Tags: Kgotso Schoeman

Mr Kgotso Schoeman
Photo: Stephen Collett

It’s not often that someone is asked a favour by the MEC of Education. However, when it does happen, it is a sign that he has full confidence in you and your abilities. This is exactly what happened to Mr Kgotso Schoeman, one of the Council members of the University of the Free State (UFS).

Mr Schoeman, who was approached by the MEC of Education in the Free State, Mr Tate Makgoe, to serve on the UFS Council, has been involved with the Kagiso Trust for the past 20 years, and now serves as the CEO of Kagiso Capital. The Kagiso Trust was established in May 1985 by anti-apartheid activists, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dr Beyers Naudé, and Prof Jakes Gerwel, in order to channel funds for the promotion of the struggle against apartheid, and for the upliftment and empowerment of communities. Today, education plays a leading role in the activities of the trust.

Mr Schoeman is now serving his second term on the UFS Council.  At the start of his term, he expressed a particular interest in learning more about the inner workings of universities, and the UFS in particular.  He believes the past two years, have been very informative in this regard.

"I have been very impressed with the academic performance of the UFS, and I have learned a lot about university governance and management during this time.  I do think, however, that there is a lot of room for improvement with regard to transformation at the UFS, especially at academic staff level," he says.

One of the issues that he has become aware of over the past two years, and which concerns him greatly, is the relationship between higher education institutions and the Department of Higher Education and Training.  It relates to another matter of concern: how higher education should be funded in South Africa.

"These are issues I raise at every Council meeting, because I feel these points are important not only for the future of the UFS, but for all higher education institutions in the country," he says.

When it comes to hobbies, Mr Schoeman loves reading. However, it is not fiction that interests him, but rather books on leadership and the changes experienced by today’s society. “In one of the educational programmes we offer, there are opportunities for people to discuss complicated topics, such as transformation. I find it fascinating to see how people can change their point of view in the course of these discussions.”

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