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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

Student Council welcomes international students on campus
2017-03-16

Description: International students on Qwaqwa Campus  Tags: International students on Qwaqwa Campus

Some of the guests and International Student
Council (ISC) members during the welcome
function. From the left are: Tatenda Goche (Deputy
Chairperson), Loice Nzombe (Chairperson),
Bulelwa Moikwatlhai (Office of International
Affairs), Jennifer Ashafa (Secretary), and
Takudzwa Nyamunda (Chairperson on the
Bloemfontein Campus)
Photo: Thabo Kessah

SRC President Njabulo Mwali says that the presence of international students on the Qwaqwa Campus is very welcome as it enables students from all over the world to learn from each other.  He was addressing the International Student Council’s welcome function for international students.

“One important area where South African students can learn a lot from international students is hard work. It is an open secret that many of us, as South Africans, are not as persistent as we should be. We give up easily,” he said to an audience of students mainly from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.

Speaking on behalf of the Rectorate, the Registrar: Systems and Administration, Dr Karen Lazenby, assured international students that the UFS is committed to their emotional and physical wellbeing.

International students face various challenges

“Having been an international student myself, I fully understand your various challenges. If you have any ideas on how we can make your stay here as memorable as possible, please help us to help you,” she said.

Both Drs Elsa Crause and Dipane Hlalele, respectively Campus Vice-Principal: Academic and Research and Acting Campus Vice-Principal: Support Services, congratulated students on choosing the Qwaqwa Campus.

“Our campus will give you many opportunities to reinvent yourself both as a person and a student,”   Dr Crause said.

Dr Hlalele added: “International experience is fascinating as it does not only provide different types of knowledge and truth, it also enriches the campus with an African and international footprint.”

The Office of International Affairs also presented its services to students.

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