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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

Minister praises MUCPP initiative
2004-10-04

The Minister of Labour, Mr MMS Mdladlana, singled out the Mangaung University of the Free State Community Partnership Programme (MUCPP) for high praise during a conference at the MUCPP complex on 30 September 2004 .

“I am very pleased with what the partnership of different stakeholders can do and I thank all stakeholders for contributing to this initiative. This is the kind of energy that our country needs,” the minister told delegates to the conference.

He said the MUCPP was a very unusual and important partnership that is related directly to the mandate of government and supports two strategic objectives of government, namely halving poverty and halving unemployment.

The MUCPP was launched in 1991 as a partnership between the University of the Free State , the local community of Mangaung, local and provincial government and the private sector, in an effort to develop skills and contribute to fighting poverty.

Some of the existing projects of the MUCPP include:

  • Health centre (including a 24-hour maternity ward)
  • Dairy producing yoghurt and amasi
  • Sewing and knitting project
  • Indigenous food production (Tsa se tso)
  • Bakery
  • Bed and Breakfast accommodation
  • Etsa phapang (a hydroponic facility growing various vegetables)
  • Welding project
  • Low cost housing project
  • Sport and recreation facilities and programmes

According to the Minister, hundreds of young people, adult learners and people with disabilities have benefited from training and skills development and have become involved in carpentry, welding, painting, cleaning services, gardening and HIV / AIDS awareness programmes.

Minister Mdladlana said he was pleased that through partnerships with several Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) which fall under the Department of Labour, the MUCPP could access hundreds of thousands of rands for such training and development.

“I can just salute those that have made it possible, and to encourage you to keep up the good work,” the minister said.

The MUCPP also provides a means for students of the UFS to render community service. The UFS was one of the first universities in South Africa to adopt a comprehensive community service policy in 2002. In terms of the policy, community service is integrated into curricula through service learning modules.

It is therefore of great importance that the UFS should support community sites such as the MUCPP where a holistic and integrated approach to mutual and reciprocal development of all partners is followed.

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