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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

“Every journey begins with the first steps” – Marguerite van der Merwe
2016-07-08

Description: Marguerite van der Merwe Tags: Marguerite van der Merwe

Marguerite van der Merwe, recipient of University of the
Free State Chancellor’s Medal, with Chancellor
Dr Khotso Mokhele, at the Winter Graduation ceremony.

Photo: Johan Roux

Marguerite van der Merwe has dedicated her life to the enrichment and increased quality of life for others. At the University of the Free State’s Winter Graduations on 30 June 2016, Van der Merwe and her brother, Anthony Douglas Osler, were both honoured with Chancellor’s Medals for exceptional service to South Africa and the world beyond our borders. In the early 1980s, she learned about the Alexander Technique and her life since then has been about perfecting the technique and sharing it with others. The Alexander Technique teaches people of any age, gender, occupation or interest, how to be posture-aware and perfect, how to be aware and alert, and how to be calm and discriminating, all of which are part of a practical teaching to integrate these qualities consciously into all our daily human activities.  

She walks the walk

She understood the Alexander Technique to be the perfect way to develop the body both physically and mentally, as it develops the higher mental faculties like focus, attention, awareness, consciousness, discrimination, and unfolding of the psyche, thus developing the human potential holistically as a spiritual way of being. She received her training for the technique in Cape Town and London, thereafter she published The Art of Walking, a guide to the Alexander Technique.

Van der Merwe is an internationally-certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, has been offering this work and its application in the spheres of health, education, and performance skills for 30 years, both nationally and internationally.

Van der Merwe says that the South African higher education system should encompass a holistic approach to teaching and educating. Education should envisage a modern vision of education that supports the evolution of the potential of the human being as a holistic system – a competent, skilled, caring, kind individual, developed in physical, mental, emotional and sensorial aspects. She believes that students thus educated will model ‘wholeness’ and ‘humanness’ as they take their place in society, business, education, and entrepreneurship.

Enriching women’s potential

Apart from The Art of Walking, Van der Merwe published EVE-OLUTION, a book to inspire women to listen to their intuition, and empower women to repossess their bodily wisdom, freedom, and authenticity. Van der Merwe proclaims that it is important to liberate women to take charge of their own bodies, minds, and souls. The purpose of the book is to ensure that young women soak up wisdom and encouragement and for older women to express their wisdom, which needs to be respected and listened to.

“Females and feminine roles in society and family are being liberated and acknowledged in the actions of many women as we stand for equal opportunity, equal power, and equality in many fields,” says Van der Merwe.
“Our young women in business and the higher education fraternity, for one, are strong in their views, beautiful in their presence, outspoken in leadership,” Van der Merwe concluded.

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