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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

Drama students awarded National Arts Council bursaries
2016-05-04

Description: Drama students awarded National Arts Council bursaries  Tags: Drama students awarded National Arts Council bursaries

The National Arts Council (NAC) has awarded R100 000 to 10 Drama students at the University of the Free State (UFS). Eight years after its establishment in 2005, the NAC has partnered our university in funding academically-deserving students needing assistance with tuition. To date, our undergraduate students have benefitted from more than R800 000.

Prof Nico Luwes, Head of the Department of Drama and Theatre Arts, who applies to the NAC at the end of each year on behalf of students, welcomes the funds: “Quite a lot of our students would not have been able to complete their studies without assistance from the bursary scheme.”

As a result of this financial injection, South African schools also gain. “Some students then enrol for a higher education diploma, and they then teach Arts and Culture at schools. Hence, there is a whole new generation of Arts and Culture teachers who are now entering the school system,” said Prof Luwes.

Mbuyiselo Nqodi, a second-year BA Drama and Theatre Arts student, would not have been able to enrol at the university in 2015, had it not been for the NAC.  “Without the bursary, I would not have been admitted into the university. It helped a lot because R10 000 can go a long way.”

Pursuing its mandate to support and develop South Africa’s arts, culture and heritage sector, the NAC awarded 117 bursaries to arts students and tertiary institutions for the year.  A total of R5 million has been allocated for 2016, a 10% increase on the previous financial year.

According to the NAC Chief Executive Officer, Rosemary Mangope, one of the aims of the NAC is to provide support to students who will contribute to the arts and culture industry in a meaningful and sustainable manner.

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