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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

Pursuit of excellence a strong focus for incoming UFS Vice-Chancellor
2017-02-06

Description: Official opening 2017 Tags: Official opening 2017

Prof Francis Petersen, the incoming
Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the UFS,
shared his future plans for the university
with staff during the official opening.
Photo: Johan Roux

Video clip
Photo gallery

The newly elected Chairperson of the UFS Council, Mr Willem Louw, and Prof Francis Petersen, the incoming Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the UFS, were welcomed at this year’s official opening of the academic year which took place at the Bloemfontein Campus of the University of the Free State (UFS) on 3 February 2017.  

Prof Petersen, who will start his tenure at the UFS on 1 April 2017, was introduced to staff by the Acting Rector, Prof Nicky Morgan. Prof Petersen shared his future plans for the UFS with staff.

His vision for the UFS spells excellence. Among others, he seeks to establish an academic culture of excellence, underpinned by the pillars of diversity and inclusivity. “It is important that there should be respect for different convictions,” he said.

“The UFS should be a place where everyone feels welcome; a strong sense of belonging is needed. Staff and students should feel that they would like to make a contribution to make the UFS a strong university,” he said.

In order to address the institutional climate issue, Prof Petersen suggests that attention be given to the curriculum as well as transformation of the research culture. Research outputs should be expanded and diversified. Inclusivity from a community engagement perspective is also needed. “The things we are good at and in which we excel should be the anchors impacting our academic enterprise,” he said.

In terms of the physical environment, he said that spaces should be welcoming for students. “It is important that we sit with students to get their views and listen to their concerns,” Prof Petersen said.

To promote transformation at the university, the UFS management team is busy working on an integrated transformation plan to be submitted to Council in June 2017. As part of this process, consultations will be held with staff and students in order to incorporate their perspectives and convictions in the plan as well.

“It is important that there should be
respect for different convictions.”

Furthermore, it is important for Prof Petersen that the Qwaqwa and South Campuses should be more integrated with the Bloemfontein Campus. “The UFS is one university with three locations. The fact that it is one university should be reflected in our actions, attentions, and thoughts. Although there are geographical differences, all three campuses should receive the same resources and should deliver the same quality outputs,” he said.

Prof Petersen ended his speech by returning to the importance of academic excellence. “With the Academic Project we always strive for excellence. To achieve academic excellence, the focus is on both academic and support staff. In order to reach our goal, all staff should produce work of superior quality,” he said.

“I am a good listener who is outcome driven, with a vision that includes: diversity, inclusivity, academic excellence, and innovation”, Prof Petersen concluded.  

 

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