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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 don’t see myself as a star, says Wayde
2016-09-20

Description: Wayde and Rynhardt celebration Tags: Wayde and Rynhardt celebration

The achievements of Wayde van Niekerk and his
fellow Kovsie athlete, Rynardt van Rensburg,
at the Olympic Games, were celebrated during
a celebration ceremony for them on
15 September 2016 in the Callie Human Centre.
Photo: Johan Roux

The environment surrounding him has changed a lot over the past few weeks, but Wayde van Niekerk doesn’t see himself as superstar. The 400 m Olympic champion is embracing being back home and is feeling the love of the Kovsie family that helped him reach great heights.

“I see this (the Bloemfontein Campus) as a place where I can find peace,” the University of the Free State (UFS) athlete said at a celebration ceremony on 15 September 2016 for him and fellow Olympian, Rynardt van Rensburg. The event celebrated their achievements after participation in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Their coaches, Tannie Ans Botha and Derek van Rensburg, were also honoured.

Van Niekerk looks ahead
“I am always excited to get back home,” Van Niekerk said. Everybody who means something to him is in Bloemfontein and on this campus. “I thank you for believing in me. I am only 24 years old and still have quite a few years left to keep on doing what I do.” He also conducted the official opening of the new KovsieFit gymnasium in the Callie Human Centre.

According to Prof Nicky Morgan, acting Vice-Chancellor and Rector, the attendees had “Wayde fever”. “We can’t really say thank you enough – at least for the association we have had with you (Van Niekerk) over the years.”

Rynardt didn’t expect best in Rio

 “I see this (the Bloemfontein Campus)
as a place where I can find peace.”

Van Rensburg reached the semi-finals in Rio and ran a personal best of 1:45.33 in the 800 m. “If we don’t have support, we won’t be able to do this,” he said.
Although his form was improving prior to the Olympics, he didn’t expect to run a personal best. “My dad (and coach) kept believing in me and telling me it is possible to do.”

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