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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

I-DENT-I-TIES tackles identity in an unusual story-telling style
2016-07-26

Description: I-DENT-I-TIES Tags: I-DENT-I-TIES

One of the leading performers, Baanetse Mokhotla.
Photo: Thabo Kessah

The I-DENT-I-TIES project has been an enormous experience for the Qwaqwa Campus students who were part of this large-scale interdisciplinary performance project. This is according to Baanetse Mokhotla, one of the leading performers.

“I have personally learnt a lot about performing arts and also grew as an individual,” Baanetse said about the production that was part of this year’s Vrystaat Arts Festival in Bloemfontein.

This massive interactive production of the 54-member student cast utilises music, song and dance in an unusual method of story-telling. It uses live video camera feeds on two big screens as well as recorded video clips of the cast itself and members of the community, some of whom were part of the audience during the two shows staged on the Qwaqwa Campus. The cast intermittently mingles with the audience, thus allowing the latter to be part of the narrative as well.

The main story line explores issues around identity while using the famous Basotho story of ‘Moshanyana Sankatana’ as a catalyst.

Two of the capturing features are the live interviews and the narration of the animated ‘Moshanyana Sankatana’ story, creating stories within a story.

Commenting about the project, SRC President Paseka Sikhosana said that he was happy to have led the student community during this proud moment.

“I loved how this show has exposed our enormously talented performers to the world. It was magical and we need more of such to ensure there will never be a dull moment on our campus,” he said.

Sociology lecturer Sivuyisiwe Magayana said: “I-DENT-I-TIES production was fresh fun. It exhibited the fact that we should be appreciative of other's differences. It also emphasised that we should move away from subscribing to an 'in-group' and 'out-group' mentality when it comes to issues of race, sexuality and identity.”

The international creative team behind this project included a New York-based Dutch director, Erwin Maas; Vienna-based Dutch theatre designer, Nico de Rooij; Djana Covic, a Serbian performance-craft-artist based in Vienna; and South African film and stage legend Jerry Mofokeng.

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