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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

South Campus supplementary schools foster future Kovsies
2016-07-13

The Monyetla Bursary Project, in partnership with the University of the Free State (UFS) and other sponsors, presents an annual Winter School for Grade 12s on the South Campus. In addition, a Saturday school for Grade 12s has been in operation since 2007.

 “Champion teachers
in the district
assist learners”

Chris Grobler, a science teacher at Navalsig High School in Bloemfontein, is the organiser of both schools. He says, “I saw it as a tragic state of affairs that those offering bursaries and the bright learners from our formerly disadvantaged schools were not meeting up with each other.”

The first year saw 300 learners attending, with five subjects being presented. This tally has since grown to 650 learners each Saturday, with 11 subjects being presented, including Business Studies, Computer Applications Technology (CAT), Geography, Maths, and English.

“Our vision was to get champion teachers in the district to assist learners to qualify for university bursaries,” says Grobler. The project has succeeded in attracting educators with extensive experience as chief markers or even subject advisors in the Department of Education.

Description: Winter school  Tags: Winter school

Roald Rautenbach presents the Computer Applications
Technology (CAT) class while Peet Jacobs interprets in SASL.
Video recordings are also made for later distribution.

Photo: Eugene Seegers

Wider reach

“This year, the 1 200 learners at the Winter School hail not only from the Free State but also from as far as North-West, Gauteng, and the Eastern Cape.” Grobler says, “We are very pleased about this, as it means that the image of the UFS is being carried further afield.”

Lesego Modisele, one of the visiting learners from Parys, says, “I like how they brought in teachers that are heads of their subjects, who are very experienced and help us a lot. They explain how exam papers are set and which important things to focus on.”

By means of the Schools Partnership Programme (SPP), 250 learners from Thaba Nchu and Botshabelo have also been assisted. Katleho Setloho, who was one of these students, is currently a medical student at the UFS.

A special feature included in this year’s programme is interpreting services in South African Sign Language (SASL) for Deaf students. As an added bonus, a disc of the sessions in SASL is being compiled for English, Mathematics, and CAT, with plans for it to be distributed to the deaf community in the rest of South Africa via the UFS.

 

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