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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

Trevor Manuel and Max du Preez among the recipients of honorary doctorates at UFS graduation
2016-07-02

Description: 4 Hon Docs Tags: 4 Hon Docs

The UFS awarded four honorary doctorates
at its Winter Graduation ceremonies.
The recipients are from left Max du Preez,
Dr Reuel Jethro Khoza, Prof Joel Samoff
and Trevor Manuel at the UFS Chancellor’s
Dinner on 30 June 2016.

Photo: Johan Roux

He is excited about the young minds he saw and interacted with at the graduation ceremony of the University of the Free State (UFS). This is what Max du Preez, one of South Africa’s leading journalists and political analysts, said after receiving an honorary doctorate.

According to Du Preez (Humanities), he was inspired by the Winter Graduation ceremony on 30 June 2016 in the Callie Human Centre on the Bloemfontein Campus. He is happy to finally also call the UFS his alma mater. He grew up in Kroonstad and is a true Free Stater, but previously graduated at the Stellenbosch University.

The UFS awarded four honorary doctorates – the others to Prof Joel Samoff (Humanities), Trevor Manuel and Dr Reuel Jethro Khoza (both Economic and Management Sciences) – and two Chancellor’s medals at the morning ceremony on 30 June 2016. Chancellor’s medals were awarded to Antony Osler and Marguerite van der Merwe (née Osler).

Manuel impressed by amount of soul

At the Chancellor’s Dinner, which was held in the Centenary Complex on the Bloemfontein Campus on 30 June 2016, Du Preez said he feels honoured. He said South Africans must embrace the diversity of the country, and the UFS is a good example. “If the University of the Free State can make it, South Africa can make it.”

Manuel, a former South African Finance Minister, said he is honoured by the amount of soul he experienced from Dr Khotso Mokhele, UFS Chancellor, and Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the UFS. “We cannot tolerate what is wrong (in the country) and need to push the boundaries of what is right,” he said.

UFS stands out regarding understanding


Dr Khoza, a distinguished thinker and businessman, also thanked the UFS at the Chancellor’s Dinner. “We shall strive to be known less for what we say, but rather more for what we do,” he said about the country.
According to Prof Samoff, Professor in Africa Studies at Stanford University (USA), “South Africa has committed itself to building a democratic, non-racist, and non-sexist society”. “Where the University of the Free State stands out, is in its understanding that societal change – ‘transformation’, to use the current terminology – is not an outcome, but a process. A difficult process.”

 

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