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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

The solution to student food insecurity is a holistic approach
2017-02-10

Description: Dietetics read more Tags: Dietetics read more

Dr Louise van den Berg from the Department of
Nutrition and Dietetics says the University of the Free State
is taking steps to teach students how to budget and make
them aware how important food nutrition is.
Photo: Pixabay 

Research at the University of the Free State (UFS) has indicated that nearly 60% of students are victims of food insecurity and suffer from hunger most of the time. The research by the UFS Faculty of Health Sciences shows that a further 25% are food insecure but are not hungry most of the time.

Senior Lecturer in the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dr Louise van den Berg, says food insecurity is common among student populations across the world. However, local research shows that it is almost double that of tertiary institutions in developed countries.

Food insecurity among students caught many people off-guard
Dr Van den Berg says in South Africa nobody had really looked at the problem until recently “It seems student food insecurity has caught many people off-guard.” She says people tend to think of tertiary students as a privileged group.

The research has now indicated how deep the problem really is on campus. The students that most likely go hungry are single, male, black or coloured, and are generally first-generation students.

They are also mostly undergraduates, those paying their studies from non-bank loans or bursary means, those not living with their parents or guardians or those that need to support somebody else financially.

The results further indicate that those that are likely to suffer from hunger seldom or never have enough money for food but have to borrow money for food, have to ask for food, sell items to get food or steal food.

“A healthy student is a
successful student.”

Bursary money send back home for parents to survive
Dr Van den Berg agrees that one of the main reasons for the situation is economic stress. Research has shown students rarely spend money on food when resources are scarce. Furthermore, parents of students studying with bursaries are not always able to fully support them on campus. Some students send bursary money back home for their parents to survive.

She says other factors that contribute to campus food insecurity are that all over the world universities have terminated catered food halls due to high costs. “To a large extent this has created a food desert for students and now they need to look after themselves.”

To throw money at the problem does not seem to be the answer. 

Students are food-uncertain beings
The research indicates that young people on campus do not know where to buy food, much less the correct, nutritional food they need. Dr Van den Berg says most universities are now aware of the problem and have been taking steps. This includes teaching students how to budget and making them aware how important nutrition is for their success and their responsibility for themselves.

Universities are also looking at private funding for food aid and food schemes. Dr Van den Berg says other solutions are the restructuring of bursary fees, student self-help initiatives and food gardens.

The Faculty of Health Sciences is taking the initiative to manage a food blog on the UFS website. It will also use other social media platforms to post food-preparation videos and recipes for students.

Dr Van den Berg says it is important to grow the 15.6% group of students who indicated they are food secure because a healthy student is a successful student.

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