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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

Johann swims his way to Olympics
2016-05-18


Johann van Heerden from the University of the Free State has qualified for the Paralympic Games in the swimming pool, and is now waiting to hear if he will be included in the South African team. Photo: Nadya van Heerden.

In the past couple of months, Johann van Heerden has been swimming his way to the Paralympic Games, and is still preparing as if he will be going to Rio de Janeiro.

The Kovsie swimmer, who will know whether he has been included in the Paralympic team in July 2016, feels his training is progressing well. The Olympics will be held in Brazil from 7 to 18 September 2016. If all goes well, this could be the first of several Olympics for the 20-year-old second-year Education student from the University of the Free State (UFS).

Dream year for Education student

Van Heerden (cerebral palsy), whose hero is the former Paralympic superstar Natalie du Toit, has had huge successes in the run-up to the 2016 Olympics. Among others, he was named the best senior swimmer at the Nedbank National Championships for the Physically Disabled in Bloemfontein in March 2016. At the South African Senior Championships in Durban in April 2016, he qualified for the Olympics in the 100 m breast-stroke with an A-qualifying time, and in the 50 m and 100 m freestyle with B-qualifying times.

Only three male swimmers to Olympics

However, he has to wait until the announcement of the South African Paralympic team, since only three male and three female swimmers will be selected. He will not be competing in another major event before the Olympics. “My short-term goal is to compete in this year’s Games, and, in the long term, I would like to reach even greater heights at the 2020 Games,” he said. Du Toit is an inspiration to him because “she was hard-working, and she had a lot of drive”.

Other students from CUADS also excel

At the above-mentioned National Championships, Van Heerden won a total of five gold medals (200 m medley, 100 m breaststroke, 50 m freestyle, 50 m breaststroke, and 200 m breaststroke) and one silver medal (100 m freestyle). Other students from the Center for Universal Access and Disability Support at the UFS also excelled.

Dineo Mokhosoa (cerebral palsy) won three gold medals (long jump, shot-put, and discus), while the athlete Louzanne Coetzee (blind) shattered the world record in the 5 000 m, as well as the Africa record in the 1 500 m. Juanré Jenkinson (cerebral palsy) won two silver medals (discus and shot-put) while Danie Breitenbach (blind) won two gold medals (800 m and 1500 m).

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