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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

NRF researcher addresses racial debates in classrooms
2017-03-24

Description: Dr Marthinus Conradie Tags: Dr Marthinus Conradie

Dr Marthinus Conradie, senior lecturer in the
Department of English, is one of 31 newly-rated National
Research Foundation researchers at the University of
the Free State.
Photo: Rulanzen Martin

Exploring numerous norms and assumptions that impede the investigation of racism and racial inequalities in university classrooms, was central to the scope of the research conducted by Dr Marthinus Conradie, a newly Y-rated National Research Foundation (NRF) researcher.

Support from various colleagues
He is one of 31 newly-rated researchers at the University of the Free State (UFS) and joins the 150 plus researchers at the university who have been rated by the NRF. Dr Conradie specialises in sociolinguistics and cultural studies in the UFS Department of English. “Most of the publications that earned the NRF rating are aimed to contributing a critical race theoretic angle to longstanding debates about how questions surrounding race and racism are raised in classroom contexts,” he said.

Dr Conradie says he is grateful for the support from his colleagues in the Department of English, as well as other members of the Faculty of the Humanities. “Although the NRF rating is assigned to a single person, it is undoubtedly the result of support from a wide range of colleagues, including co-authors Dr Susan Brokensha, Prof Angelique van Niekerk, and Dr Mariza Brooks, as well as our Head of Department, Prof Helene Strauss,” he said.

Should debate be free of emotion?
His ongoing research has not been assigned a title yet, as he and his co-author does not assign titles prior to drafting the final manuscript. “Most, but not all, of the publications included in my application to the NRF draw from discourse analysis of a Foucauldian branch, including discursive psychology,” Dr Conradie says. His research aims to suggest directions and methods for exploring issues about race, racism, and racial equality relating to classroom debates. One thread of this body of work deals with the assumption that classroom debates must exclude emotions. Squandering opportunities to investigate the nature and sources of the emotions provoked by critical literature, might obstruct the discussion of personal histories and experiences of discrimination. “Equally, the demand that educators should control conversations to avoid discomfort might prevent in-depth treatment of broader, structural inequalities that go beyond individual prejudice,” Dr Conradie said. A second stream of research speaks to media representations and cultural capital in advertising discourse. A key example examines the way art from European and American origins are used to imbue commercial brands with connotations of excellence and exclusivity, while references to Africa serve to invoke colonial images of unspoiled landscapes.

A hope to inspire further research
Dr Conradie is hopeful that fellow academics will refine and/or alter the methods he employed, and that they will expand, reinterpret, and challenge his findings with increasing relevance to contemporary concerns, such as the drive towards decolonisation. “When I initially launched the research project (with significant aid from highly accomplished co-authors), the catalogue of existing scholarly works lacked investigations along the particular avenues I aimed to address.”

Dr Conradie said that his future research projects will be shaped by the scholarly and wider social influences he looks to as signposts and from which he hopes to gain guidelines about specific issues in the South African society to which he can make a fruitful contribution.

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