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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

OSM students off to Canada and Belgium
2016-07-01

Description: 001 OSM Naledi Lux Tags: 001 OSM Naledi Lux
Naledi Dweba will have the opportunity to
take part in tutorials such as reed making
and instrument adjusting when attending
the Belgian Clarinet Academy.

Photo: Supplied

Although he is only a first-year student at the Odeion School of Music (OSM), he will learn from, and share his knowledge with, the best in the world. Tuhafeni Michael from the University of the Free State has been selected for an international choral music residency at the Kokopelli Choir Association in Edmonton, Canada during June-July 2016.

Michael and Naledi Dweba are two OSM students that will enhance their skills abroad. Dweba, one of Danré Strydom’s clarinet students, has received a scholarship to attend the 2016 Belgian Clarinet Academy in Ostend, Belgium from 6-12 July.

Guest speaker at celebrations


Apart from receiving extensive training as choral conductor, Michael will also serve as a guest speaker during the Kokopelli Choir Association 20th anniversary. He will teach choral music from his native Namibia.

After the residency, he is expected to serve as an ambassador for the Kokopelli Foundation in Southern Africa. Apart from sharing his skills, he will also assist in recruiting new talented students, and act as mentor to other aspiring choral conductors.

“I’m hoping to really learn from some of the best choral conductors of our times, as well as from fellow students attending the course,” says Michael.

Masterclasses in rest of Europe


Dweba’s scholarship provides a week-long, intensive immersion in clarinet. Individual students receive at least 3 intensive private lessons, and participate in clarinet ensembles, receive chamber music coaching, observe and perform in masterclasses. The main instructors of the event will be Robert Spring (Arizona State University), Eddy Vanoosthuyse (Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra), and Deborah Bish (Florida State University).

After the scholarship, he will attend masterclasses in Germany and the United Kingdom.


 

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