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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

Largest group on African continent introduced to Sign Language
2016-07-05

Description: z UFS101 SASL Tags: z UFS101 SASL

The introduction of basic Sign Language
as part of the UFS101 course was a great
success. From left are Susan Lombaard,
Annemarie le Roux, Tshisikhawe Dzivhani
(all from the Department of South African
Sign Language), and Lauren Oosthuizen
(UFS101).

Photo: Leonie Bolleurs

As a result of a new initiative at the University of the Free State (UFS), the largest group of students on the African continent took part in a first-year seminar which included Sign Language.

A total of 5400 students on the Bloemfontein Campus and 1000 on Qwaqwa Campus were taught basic Sign Language by Susan Lombaard, Acting Head of the Department of South African Sign Language, and her team members, Tshisikhawe Dzivhani, Annemarie le Roux, and Nicolene de Klerk.

It forms part of the UFS101 module presented to all first-year students. The initiative, begun in the first semester of 2016, will form part of UFS101 in future and was met with an overwhelmingly positive response.

Three segments of course

Sign Language was taught in three segments and positioned as large-class learning experiences in the Callie Human Centre (Bloemfontein Campus) and the Nelson Mandela Hall (Qwaqwa Campus). Students were taught about deaf culture, Sign Language theory, as well as how to sign their names, exchange pleasantries, and have a basic conversation.

A valuable skill to have

“It (the Sign Language experience) was very interesting and helpful,” said one of the students. “It is important to have the ability to communicate with all sorts of people, and to be able to help them in a crisis”. According to another, it sparked an interest in Sign Language. “It is a skill I will continue to use and try to learn more from it,” said a third.

Lombaard – in collaboration with the UFS101 team – will be presenting a paper related to this achievement at the DeafNet Africa Conference in Johannesburg, from 26 to 30 September 2016.

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