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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

SA and Africa must avoid going over the edge
2017-02-26

Description: Prof Hussein Solomon, SA and Africa must avoid going over the edge Tags: Prof Hussein Solomon, SA and Africa must avoid going over the edge

From left are: Prof JM Moosa (Centre for African
Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India),
Prof Hussein Solomon (Senior Professor: Political
Studies and Governance at the UFS),
Prof Virgil Hawkins (Osaka School of International
Public Policy Studies, Osaka University in Japan), and
Prof Ajay Dubey (Centre for African Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru
University, India).
Photo: Jóhann Thormählen

South Africa and the rest of Africa might be standing on the edge of a cliff and therefore conversations are necessary to avoid tipping over. According to Prof Hussein Solomon that was why a conference to address these issues was recently co-hosted by the University of the Free State (UFS).

Prof Solomon, Senior Professor of Political Studies and Governance at the UFS, said the continent and country needed to make the right decisions. “These right choices refer to the correct economic, political, and social policies.”

International delegates attend
Delegates from India, Japan, Zambia, Lesotho and South Africa attended the conference, called A View from the Precipice: Critical Reflections on South Africa and Africa in the 21st Century, on 13 and 14 February 2017 on the Bloemfontein Campus. It was co-hosted by the UFS Department of Political Studies and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University (India), Centre for the Engagement on African Peace and Security, Southern African Centre for Collaboration on Peace and Security and Osaka University (Japan).

Prof Solomon said external actors provided a useful mirror as they gave an idea of how Africa and South Africa were viewed from abroad.

Creating a knowledge-sharing forum
“It is not just about sharing knowledge, but creating a forum for sharing knowledge,” said Prof Virgil Hawkins from the Osaka School of International Public Policy Studies.
Prof Hawkins, who is a visiting professor at the UFS, said a conference like this was one of the cornerstones of the relationship between the UFS and Osaka University. Prof Solomon is also a visiting professor at last mentioned university.

Highlights of conference
Prof Solomon said some of the discussions included that “the ANC government is in crisis and is dragging the rest of the country with it”. Another participant said that 80% of the jobs in the next 20 years had not been created yet – which put the relevance of tertiary education in the spotlight.

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