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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

Farmers need to plan grazing better, says UFS expert
2017-02-21

Description: Prof HO de Waal Tags: Prof HO de Waal

Prof HO de Waal, affiliated researcher
at the University of the Free State,
says farmers should save grazing
during the summer months to have
fodder available in the winter and
early spring.
Photo: Theuns Botha,
Landbouweekblad

“Farmers should save veld during the summer months to have grazing available for animals especially in the winter and early spring. Farmers should also adjust livestock numbers timely and wisely according to the available material in the field,” says Prof HO de Waal, professional animal scientist and affiliated researcher in the Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Sciences at the University of the Free State.

He offered this advice as a result of the sporadic and scattered (scant) rainfall of the past couple of summers. “In retrospect we know that this kind of precipitation started in about 2014 and has continued in subsequent summers. In February 2015, it was clear that a major fodder scarcity was developing.”

Existing research methods serve as source of current knowledge
Dr Herman Fouché (Agricultural Research Council) has conducted research on the impact of climate, especially rainfall, on the growth of grass. Sophisticated computer technology developed as far back as the 1980s to – through modelling – predicts the impact of climate on field production during the growing season.

The impact of climate, and more specifically rainfall, on field production has been known to animal and grazing scientists for a long time. Prof De Waal used the modelling results to determine the impact of rainfall on grass as a feeding source for animals.

“Information that emerged from this old research programme could therefore be applied directly to animal production,” says Prof De Waal.

Adjust livestock numbers to availability of grazing
In the summer rainfall areas of South Africa, grass usually grows from the end of August and early September. The growth process is dependent on the transfer of soil moisture, as well as on rainfall during the winter and early spring.

“Livestock numbers should be balanced throughout the year (according to the nutritional needs and production of the animals) with the availability of grazing material – be consistent, not only during certain seasons or when drought is imminent,” is Prof De Waal’s advice to farmers. “Farmers are also encouraged to carefully reduce the number of livestock on grazing and to rather focus their attention and limited resources on the remaining breeding herds (cows and ewes).”

“It is tragic, but unfortunately many farmers will not survive the effects of recent years. Similar climatic conditions will occur, with the same tragic consequences for man and beast. Better planning has to start now.” The assistance of private institutions, individuals, as well as the government, during the severe droughts is gratefully acknowledged.

Spineless cactus pear as solution for scarcity of animal feed
Prof De Waal says spineless cactus pears could be used as a feeding source during droughts. “The effects of a severe drought, or major animal-feed scarcity, are still prevalent in large parts of the subcontinent.” This may act as a catalyst to utilise spineless cactus pears as a feeding source and to be incorporated in the feed-flow programme for livestock on natural grazing.

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