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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

Triumph in the face of adversity
2016-04-29

Description: Glory NSH Tags: Glory NSH

Glory, one of fourteen NSH bursary recipients during the UFS Autumn Graduations.

At the University of the Free State (UFS) Autumn Graduation Ceremony held from 12-15 April 2016, on the Bloemfontein Campus, a record number of fourteen beneficiaries of the No Student Hungry (NSH) Bursary Programme received their degrees. This is an achievement they all feel they could not have reached, were it not for the support by NSH.

The NSH food bursary is awarded to students on the basis of financial need, academic excellence, and a commitment to serve the community. The UFS has helped over 650 students since 2011, when Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector, started NSH.

These students are true beacons of inspiration and determination. Indeed, they have triumphed in the face of adversity. This is what can be said about their determination and will to succeed.

Glory, a previous recipient of the NSH bursary and a mother of two, graduated on Tuesday morning, receiving a BEd degree (intermediate phase). She stated that the NSH bursary changed her life drastically when she started receiving it.

“I used to constantly worry about my children and what they would eat. So I would sacrifice my own meals throughout the day just to make sure they have food to eat,” says Glory.

“The NSH bursary really gave me peace of mind, my school work was suffering and once I started receiving food each day, I could focus on what really mattered: my degree.”

“My goals for this year are to get a permanent job, and start receiving a stable salary. I am currently working as a temporary teacher at a primary school in Bloemfontein.

Description: Katlego NSH Tags: Katlego NSH

Katlego, one of fourteen NSH bursary recipients during the UFS Autumn Graduations.

“I never would have thought that I could have made it this far. I want to pursue my postgraduate studies, to inspire my children and other students who have been in my shoes. There is help and hope. My faith also gave me refuge. Nothing that is given to me is taken for granted,” says Glory.

Another student Katlego, who graduated on 14 April 2016, receiving her BCom Human Resource Management degree. At present, she is busy with her BCom Industrial Psychology Honours. She heard about the NSH food bursary, through a friend in 2014, and has been immensely grateful for all she has received. 

“There is no shame in asking for help. There can only be hope and relief,” she said.

“I am so thankful for NSH. As part of the bursary programme, we commit to serving the community. We receive but we are also encouraged to give back. The community service projects have helped me to get out of my comfort zone, to look beyond myself and acknowledge that I am also required to give back my time to others who appreciate and cherish it.”   

The NSH students are offered not only a food bursary; they participate in student wellness and development programmes, and they are motivated and exposed to opportunities for personal growth. Students are also encouraged to be involved in university or community projects as a way of ploughing back into the community, thus creating a reciprocal cycle of giving and receiving within their community.

 

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