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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

CTL experiments with mobile technology in teaching and learning
2016-05-23

Description: CTL experiments with mobile technology  Tags: CTL experiments with mobile technology

On the left is Nokukhanya Nkosi, Researcher and Project manager at the Centre for Teaching and Learning presenting Annah Nggoepe her brand new laptop as part of the project which assesses the impact of personal mobile devices on teaching and learning.
Photo: Supplied

Video clip

Same curriculum. Add technology. Wait and see what happens. This research project which is funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) seeks to understand the impact of personal mobile devices (PMD) in teaching and learning.

The University of the Free State (UFS), in conjunction with the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Johannesburg, and Sol Plaatje University, was approached by the DHET to spearhead this national collaborative project. Investigating whether the financial investment of a PMD on either the part of a university or of students adds value to the teaching and learning experience is the overall objective of the project.

Contemporary education
The Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at the UFS have been taking an active part in the project since 2015, focusing specifically on the use of personal mobile devices in teaching and learning by both staff and students.

At the student level, the study will focus specifically on not just the obstacles that first-generation students face in terms of using technology in teaching and learning, but how institutions can support these students through access to these devices.  “In 2015, the CTL conducted the Digital Identity Study of students which highlighted the view that students at the UFS deemed laptops to be the most important PMD in their studies,” said Nokukhanya Nkosi, Researcher and Project manager at the CTL.   

In April 2016, thirty students were presented with laptops funded by the project grant. For the next two years, the CTL will assess whether these laptops enable greater flexibility and effectiveness of teaching and learning, both inside and out of the classroom for these students.  

Rise of the digital classroom
Annah Ngoepe, a second-year Geography and Environmental Management student taking part in this study, commends the shift from using only textbooks in the past to incorporating technology. “The laptop has the latest applications and programmes, which are convenient for me as a student, because they help in my learning. I can also download textbooks, get summaries of the textbooks, and even other people’s views on a particular subject online.”

Tiana van der Merwe, Deputy Director at the CTL, anticipates that, after two years, the Centre would be able to make not only institutional recommendations, but also recommendations to the National Department of Higher Education.

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