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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

Third NRF A-rated researcher for UFS
2017-02-03

Description: Prof Jansen, NRF A-rated researcher  Tags: Prof Jansen, NRF A-rated researcher

Prof Jonathan Jansen, senior researcher at the UFS
Faculty of Education, recently joined two other
UFS researchers as NRF A-rated researchers.
They from the left are: Profs Melanie Walker, Maxim Finkelstein
and Jansen.
Photo: Charl Devenish

The University of the Free State received its third A-rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF) when Prof Jonathan Jansen was awarded an A2-rating.

Prof Jansen is a Senior Research Professor in Education secondary research field and field of specialisation: Development education and Curriculum theory at the UFS Faculty of Education and Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies at Stanford University in the US.

Prof Jansen’s rating follows P-rating
Prof Jansen’s rating also adds to the recent P-rating awarded to Dr Daniel Spence, a postdoctoral Research Fellow at the International Studies Group. In receiving the rating, the UFS became the only university in South Africa with a P-rated researcher in History.

P-ratings are given to young researchers, usually under the age of 35, who have the potential to become leaders in their field. Researchers in this group are recognised by all, or the overwhelming majority of, reviewers, as having demonstrated the potential to become future international leaders. 

“Obtaining another A-rating is indicative of the university’s drive to enhance its research profile – nationally as well as internationally. I am thankful to our scholars for their commitment to the rating process and look forward to receive the results of this year’s ratings,” said Prof Corli Witthuhn, Vice-Rector: Research at the UFS.   

Total number of researchers increased
The UFS has also upped the ante with regards to its total number of NRF-rated researchers during the latest rating and evaluation with an increase from 127 in 2015 to 149 rated researchers in 2016.

In 2015, Prof Maxim Finkelstein from the Department of Mathematical Statistics and Actuarial Science, and Prof Melanie Walker, Senior Research Professor and Director of the Centre for Research on Higher Education and Development, were given A-ratings.

Prof Finkelstein’s rating then made him the only A-rated researcher in ‘Probability and Statistics’ regarding Mathematical Sciences in the country. Prof Walker was evaluated and graded in the division for Research, Innovation Support and Advancement.

According to the NRF, A-rated researchers are “unequivocally recognised by their peers as leading international scholars in their field for the high quality and impact of their recent research outputs”.

 

The rating of individuals is based primarily on the quality and impact of their research over the past eight years.

 

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