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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

Research helps farmers save with irrigation
2017-02-15

Description: Irrigation research Tags: Irrigation research

Marcill Venter, lecturer in the Department of
Agricultural Economics at the University of the
Free State, has developed the mathematical
programming system, Soil Water Irrigation
Planning and Energy Management in order to
determine irrigation pump hours.
Photo: Rulanzen Martin

Her advice to farmers is that they should make sure they are aware of the total cost (investment and operating costs) of an irrigation system. In most cases the investment cost is low, but the operating cost over the lifetime of the system is high.

“It is very important to have a look at the total cost and to install the most economic system,” says Marcill Venter, lecturer at the University of the Free State (UFS), who has done research on the economic sustainability of water-pipe systems.

Irrigation systems important components for farming
This research comes at a time when many farmers are relying on their irrigation systems due to persistent drought and low rainfall during 2016. South Africa has also experienced an abnormal increase in electricity tariffs in recent years. Due to tariff increases which threaten the future profitability of irrigation producers, the Water Research Commission (WRC) has launched and financed a project on the sustainable management of irrigation farming systems. “I had the opportunity to work on the project as a researcher,” says Venter.

The heart of every irrigation system is the water pipes that bring life to crops and livestock, and this is what Venter’s research is about. “Water pipes are part of the whole design of irrigation systems. The design of the system impact certain factors which determine the investment and operating costs,” she says.

Mathematical system to help farmers
Venter and Professor Bennie Grové, also from the Department of Agricultural Economics at the UFS, designed the Soil Water Irrigation Planning and Energy Management (SWIP-E) programming model as part of the WRC’s project, as well as for her master’s degree. “The model determines irrigation pump hours through a daily groundwater budget, while also taking into account the time-of-use electricity tariff structure and change in kilowatt requirements arising from the main-line design,” says Venter. The model is a non-linear programming model programmed in General Algebraic Modeling System (GAMS).

Design of irrigation system important for sustainability

The main outcome of the study is that the time-of-use electricity tariff structure (Ruraflex) is always more profitable than the flat-rate structure (Landrate). The interaction between the management and design of a system is crucial, as it determines the investment and operating costs. Irrigation designers should take the investment and operating cost of a system into account during the design process. The standards set by the South African Irrigation Institute (SAII) should also be controlled and revised.

Water-pipe thickness plays major role in cost cuts
There is interaction between water-pipe thickness, investment and operating costs. When thinner water pipes are installed, it increases the friction in the system as well as the kilowatt usage. A high kilowatt increases the operating cost, but the use of thinner water pipes lowers the investment cost. Thicker water pipes therefore lower the friction and the kilowatt requirements, which leads to lower operating costs, but thicker pipes have a higher investment cost. “It is thus crucial to look at the total cost (operating and investment cost) when investing in a new system. Farmers should invest in the system with the lowest total cost,” says Venter.

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