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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

UFS students win Innovation prize
2007-11-05

 

From the left are, front: Kasey Kakoma (member of the winning team) and Ji-Yun Lee (member of the winning team); back: Prof. Herman van Schalkwyk (Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the UFS), Lehlohonolo Mathengtheng (member of the winning team) and Prof. Gerrit van Wyk (consultant from Technology Transfer Projects who arranged the first phase of the competition).
Photo (Leonie Bolleurs):
 

UFS students win Innovation prize

Prizes to the value of R100 000 were recently handed to students in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS) during a prize winners function of the National Innovation Competition.
“The competition is sponsored by the Innovation Fund, which was established by the national Department of Science and Technology and is managed by the National Research Foundation (NRF). The competition seeks to develop innovation and entrepreneurship amongst students in higher education institutions,” said Prof. Teuns Verschoor, Vice-Rector of Academic Operations at the UFS.

Most universities in South Africa take part in the competition. “The first phase of the competition is per university where students can win prize money to the value of R100 000. The three winners then compete in the national competition, where prize money to the value of R600 000 can be won,” said Prof. Verschoor.

Eight teams from the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences competed in the local competition. The teams had to submit a business plan, which was judged by six external adjudicators.

The winning team from the Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology submitted their business plan with the title: “Using bacteriophages to combat specific bacterial infections in poultry". The team, consisting of Kasey Kakoma from Zambia, Lehlohonolo Mathengtheng from South Africa, and Ji-Yun Lee from South Korea, were awarded R50 000 in cash. All three students are Master’s degree students in Microbiology in the Veterinary Biotechnology Research group at the UFS.

The team who came second was from the Department of Physics with team leader Lisa Coetzee and they received R30 000. The title of their project was “Light of the future”. The third prize of R20 000 went to Lizette Jordaan of the Department of Chemistry with a project entitled: “Development of a viable synthetic route towards a natural substrate with possible application in the industry”.

Prof. Gerrit van Wyk, former dean of the UFS Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and consultant for Technology Transfer Projects, annually drives this competition.

In his announcement of the winners of the first phase of the 2007 National Innovation Competition, Prof. Herman van Schalkwyk, Dean of the UFS Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, said innovation and entrepreneurship are important to stimulate and create sustainable economic growth in South Africa. “Through this competition universities get the opportunity to show to South Africa its capabilities in the arena of innovation and commercialisation of ideas,” he said.

To proceed to the second phase of the competition, the business plans of the three finalists from each qualifying higher education institution will be submitted for the national competition. The best three students from each participating institution will exhibit their innovations at the national awards ceremony early in 2008. The top ten entrants and subsequently the best three business plans from the total entries will then be short listed. The prize money won at the national competition has to be used for the commercialisation of the project or the founding of a company.

Media Release
Issued by: Lacea Loader
Assistant Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2584
Cell: 083 645 2454
E-mail: loaderl.stg@ufs.ac.za  
5 November 2007
 

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