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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

Students receive hands-on crime scene investigation training
2016-09-02

Description: Crime scene investigation training Tags: Crime scene investigation training

Ntau Mafisa, a forensic science honours student
at the UFS, and Captain Samuel Sethunya from
the SAPS Crime Scene Management in
Bloemfontein.
Photo: Leonie Bolleurs

With murder and robbery rates on the rise, the Forensic Science Programme of the Department of Genetics at the University of the Free State is playing a key role in training South Africa’s future crime scene investigators and forensic laboratory analysts.

According to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), murder and aggravated robbery rates for 2014/2015, as recorded by the South African Police Services (SAPS) have increased. Incidents of murder increased by 4.6% in the period from 2013/2014 to 2014/2015 and aggravated robbery increased by 8.5 % in the same period. The ISS is an African organisation thant enhances human security by providing independent and authoritative research, expert policy advice and capacity building.

Dr Ellen Mwenesongole, a forensic science lecturer at the Department of Genetics, said the university was one of a few universities in South Africa that actually had a forensic science programme, especially starting from undergraduate level.

Crime scene evaluation component incorporated in curriculum
As part of its Forensic Science Honours Programme, the department has, for the first time, incorporated a mock crime scene evaluation component in its curriculum. Students process a mock crime scene and are assessed based on how closely they follow standard operating procedures related to crime scenes and subsequent laboratory analysis of items of possible evidential value.

The mock crime scene forms part of a research project data collection of the honours students. In these projects students utilise different analytical methods to analyse and distinguish between different types of evidence such as hair fibres, cigarette butts, illicit drugs and dyes extracted from questioned documents and lipsticks.

Students utilise different analytical methods to analyse
and distinguish between different types of evidence.

This year, the department trained the first group of nine students in the Forensic Science Honours Programme. Dr Mwenesongole, who received her training in the UK at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, said incorporating a crime scene evaluation component into the curriculum was a global trend at universities that were offering forensic science programmes.

Department of Genetics and SAPS collaborate
It is important to add this component to the student’s curriculum. In this way the university is equipping students not only with theoretical knowledge but practical knowledge on the importance of following proper protocol when collecting evidence at crime scenes and analysing it in the laboratory to reduce the risk of it becoming inadmissible in a court of law.

The Genetics Department has a good working relationship with the Forensic Science Laboratory and Free State Crime Scene Management of the Division Forensic Services of the SAPS. The mock crime scene was set up and assessed in collaboration with the Crime Scene Management Division of the SAPS. Although the SAPS provides specialist advanced training to its staff members, the university hopes to improve employability for students through such programmes.

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