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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

Horse-riding therapy improves self-confidence in children
2016-05-10


This group of Honours students in Psychology at the University of the Free State was honoured with the best postgraduate Service Learning award at the prize-giving function of the Faculty of the Humanities. From the left are Adriana de Vries, Hershel Meyerowitz, Simoné le Roux, Wijbren Nell, Melissa Taljaard, and Gerán Lordan. Photo: Marizanne Cloete.

Horse-riding therapy helps to improve self-confidence in children, and changes their perception of themselves. It puts them in a totally new environment where they can be free of any judgement.

According to Wijbren Nell, who achieved his Honours degree in Psychology at the University of the Free State (UFS), this is the ideal therapy when working with children with disabilities. He said it was amazing to see how they developed.

He was part of a group of Honours students in Psychology who received the best postgraduate Service Learning award in the Faculty of the Humanities for their community project. In 2015, this project by Wijbren, Hershel Meyerowitz, Gerán Lordan, Melissa Taljaard, Simoné le Roux, and Adriana de Vries, was part of their module Community and Social Psychology. They were honoured at the Faculty’s prize-giving function on 15 April 2016.

Purpose of project

“Our purpose with the project was to demonstrate to the children that they could still accomplish something, despite their disabilities,” Wijbren said. The students work on a weekly basis with learners from the foundation phase of the Lettie Fouché School in Bloemfontein. Marie Olivier’s Equistria Therapeutic Development Trust serves as the site for the community project. She has a long standing partnership with the UFS.

Horse-riding and therapy

According to Wijbren, the idea was to stimulate the psychomotor functioning of the children, as well as to promote their psychological well-being. He said research has shown that there is incredible therapeutic value in horse-riding. In this specific case, it has improved the children’s self-confidence, as they may have a poor self-image as a result of their disabilities.

“At the beginning of the year, there was a girl who didn’t even want to come close to a horse, let alone getting onto the horse. We kept on trying, and, once she was on the horse, we couldn’t get her down. This was the amazing thing about the project,” said Wijbren.

Award a surprise

Wijbren said the award was a honour and surprise to his group. He was full of praise for Dr Pravani Naidoo, a lecturer in Psychology at the UFS, who coordinates the therapeutic horse riding project. “She has a tremendous passion for this project, and challenged us to think on our feet. She is a real inspiration.”

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