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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 opens centenary complex
2004-10-12

Today, 12 October 2004, the University of the Free State (UFS) opens the Centenary complex on the grounds of the old Reitz dining hall.

Me Edma Pelzer, Director: Physical Resources and Special Projects at the UFS, said the Centenary complex is furnished mainly for personnel and alumni, just as the Thakaneng Bridge was primarily established as gathering place for students.

On 10 March 2004 the UFS management held the first official function in the half completed complex during the unveiling of the memorial stone by the Rector, Prof Frederick Fourie. What made this occasion remarkable is that old President FW Reitz, 81 years earlier, on 10 March 1923, also laid a memorial stone at the same place, said Ms Pelzer. The complex originally existed of the Reitz dining hall, which was named after old president Reitz, a hostel father residence and administration offices. In historical documents about old president Reitz it is mentioned that already as chief judge he campaigned for the establishment of a university in the Free State and later as president he proceeded with this attempt.

With the opening of the Thakaneng-bridge food preparation and -serving at the Reitz dining hall was discontinued. The kitchen and dining facilities became obsolete. With the evacuation of the old student centre replacements for the Bloemfontein- and Anlgo American-rooms were to be found elsewhere on campus. The idea to convert the historical Reitz building complex in an UFS reception and a space for socialising started to exist.

Ms Pelzer said the UFS is committed to treat its history and its old buildings with respect and to utilise it optimally to enhance the strategic objectives of the university. The Centenary complex must communicate the university as an established, quality institution with an interesting history to visitors. It must serve as a home for alumni and as a one stop visiting point for important visitors who do not have time to experience the whole campus.

In the complex provision is made for entertaining and kitchen facilities, a museum where valuable UFS-memorabilia are kept and exhibited, an amfi theatre and an art gallery which would for the first time offer a permanent home for the art collection of the UFS. Venues will accommodate groups from between 15 to 300 persons.

The reception area will be used by the UFS for occasions such as chancellors’ functions, smaller and bigger receptions for the rector, tea parties after graduation ceremonies, openings of conferences and long service awards. The university also plans to rent out the complex for prestige occasions where the UFS personnel and alumni are involved.

The opening of the Centenary complex form part of the Centenary celebrations of this week. Many of this week’s activities will take place in the complex.

Media release
Issued by: Lacea Loader
Media Representative
Tel: (051) 401-2584
Cell: 083 645 2454
E-mail: loaderl.stg@mail.uovs.ac.za
12 October 2004

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