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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 establishes links with the University of Ghent
2007-11-15

The University of the Free State (UFS) recently formalised its co-operation ties with the University of Ghent in Belgium. The two universities signed a memorandum of understanding during the Accenta Trade Fair, an annual event that incorporates activities such as business seminars, cultural events and exhibitions.

The signing of the memorandum of understanding took place via a live video conference linking the two institutions of higher learning.

“It was a wonderful moment because, after signing the memorandum of understanding on the Main Campus in Bloemfontein, the Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Frederick Fourie, actually showed us his signature on the screen while we were in Ghent”, said Prof. Koos Bekker of the Department of Public Management at the UFS, who was part of the delegation from the Free State.

The delegation consisted of the Premier, Ms Beatrice Marshoff, and several MECs and senior officials from the Free State provincial government, as well as the mayor, councillors and senior officials of the Mangaung Local Municipality. Several staff members of the UFS were also part of the delegation.

According to Prof. Bekker, the two universities will co-operate in various areas in terms of the memorandum of understanding.

“In the short term the collaboration will be focused on bio-fuels, public management and the digital divide, while discussions in other areas such as health services and organised crime are also under way,” he said.

As part of the memorandum of understanding, the following collaborative efforts are also envisaged:

Mr Lyndon du Plessis, a lecturer in the Department of Public Management, will be enrolled for a Ph.D. at both universities as from September 2008.

A research project involving both universities, the Mangaung Local Municipality and the City of Ghent, will be undertaken.
An investigation will be conducted by both universities regarding the possibility of writing a book on performance management in the public sector (negotiations with the publisher in this regard are under way).

An exchange programme involving students and staff from both universities will be established.

Academics from the UFS delivered papers during one of the forums that formed part of the Accenta Trade Fair programme in Ghent. Prof. Koos Bekker and Mr Lyndon du Plessis from the Department of Public Management delivered papers on strategic planning in practice on the first day of the event, which was devoted to scientific seminars. On the second day Prof. Lucius Botes, Director of the Centre for Development Support at the UFS, delivered a paper on economic development issues, and on the third day Prof. Gustav Visser, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the UFS, delivered a paper on tourism.

Papers on bridging the digital divide were presented during the video conference by academics in both Bloemfontein and Ghent.

As guests of honour at the Accenta Trade Fair, the Free State delegation was allocated the main exhibition floor space, covering 1 092 m². The Main Exhibition Hall covers a total surface area of 40 000 m². The Accenta Trade Fair attracts an average of 100 000 visitors annually. The UFS also participated as an exhibitor at the Trade Fair.

This visit was a follow-up of the previous visit, during which the Free State delegation was hosted by the City of Ghent and the provincial government of East Flanders for planning purposes from 14 to 24 April 2007.

Media Release
Issued by: Mangaliso Radebe
Assistant Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2828
Cell: 078 460 3320
E-mail: radebemt.stg@ufs.ac.za  
14 November 2007
 

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