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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

Prof Van den Oever gives students a different perspective
2016-05-06

Description: Prof Van den Oever gives students a different perspective Tags: Prof Van den Oever gives students a different perspective

Prof Annie van den Oever from the Netherlands presented a series of guest lectures on media technologies to students of the Film and Visual Media Programme at the University of the Free State (UFS). Here from left is Chris Vorster, lecturer in Drama and Theatre Arts, Prof Van den Oever, and Dr Pieter Venter, Senior lecturer at Drama and Theatre Arts.
Photo: Jóhann Thormählen

She played a part in conceptualising the Film and Visual Media Programme at the University of the Free State (UFS), and sees film from a perspective different from most young South Africans.

According to Chris Vorster, lecturer of the UFS BA Honours degree in Film and Visual Media, this is one of the reasons why Prof Annie van den Oever’s visit is of such great value. The actor, who is a lecturer in Drama and Theatre Arts, believes it is important to expose his students to influences outside their normal experience.

Prof Van den Oever, an extraordinary professor at the UFS since 2011, presented a series of guest lectures on media technologies from 11-14 April 2016 at the Audio Visual Studio on the Bloemfontein Campus. She is a senior researcher for Film at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and an Associated Researcher for Film at Paris 1, Panthéon Sorbonne, in France.

Another milieu

“It is invaluable for students, in any field of study, to receive as many influences from the outside. Therefore, it is important to have someone here from another milieu and context. And academically, she is outstanding,” says Vorster.

Vorster’s students are also exposed to practical expertise from the industry in the country, not only academics.

Relationship with UFS

Prof Van den Oever says she usually visits the UFS twice a year. Her recent lecture series on media technologies was about the power of visual and film culture today, and how you can understand its powers. “Why strange effects work strongly and why the strange is inserted, because people respond strongly to them,” she says.

Prof van den Oever enjoys meeting new people, and often works with colleagues from the UFS on various projects. She also is full of praise for the management of the university. “It is great to work across cultures, and be part of a university in transition.”

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