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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 Jonathan Jansen steps down as UFS Vice-Chancellor and Rector
2016-05-16

Statement by Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the UFS (pdf)

Statement by Judge Ian van der Merwe, Chairperson: UFS Council

Prof Jonathan Jansen will step down as Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State (UFS) on 31 August 2016.

He will take up an invitation as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University in the USA in September 2016. The fellowship, which was awarded to him earlier this year, is an opportunity for him to further advance his career as an internationally renowned academic in education. Prof Jansen’s departure is a great loss for the university, but the Council accepts his decision to step down and pursue his academic career as well as other opportunities.

The Council is grateful for the vision and the inspirational leadership that Prof Jansen provided during his tenure at the UFS. He has led the university through difficult and complex times – from after the Reitz incident up until the recent student protest actions. He brought stability and respect for the university – nationally as well as internationally.

The Council appreciates Prof Jansen’s drive to further the academic performance and transformation of the UFS. To this end he was instrumental in the improvement of student success and graduation rates, the increase in the percentage of academic staff with doctoral qualifications, the increase in research outputs, the growth in staff diversity, and the growth in third-stream income.

Furthermore, Prof Jansen played a significant part in developing the UFS as a place where the embrace of diversity and the integration of the university provide a backdrop for academic excellence. Under his leadership, the UFS made great strides in fulfilling its social responsibility to serve the community. He was the right leader at the right time for the university.

On behalf of the Council and the entire university community, I thank him for his contributions as a capable, energetic and dedicated leader and wish him the best for his future.

Prof Jansen was appointed as Vice-Chancellor and Rector on 1 July 2009 and his term of office was extended for another five years by the Council on 1 July 2014. 

In the event that the position is not filled by the end of August 2016, Prof Nicky Morgan, current Vice-Rector: Operations at the UFS, will act as Vice-Chancellor and Rector. The Council will shortly start the process to appoint a successor through a national and international search.

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