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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

Prof Steyn to receive Jan H Marais Prize in Stellenbosch
2017-05-09

Description: Prof Jaap Steyn  Tags: Prof Jaap Steyn

Prof Jaap Steyn, who started his career as
journalist at Volksblad, later entered the academy,
and was a professor at the University of the
Free State for many years.
Photo: Marthie Kemp

Although Prof Jaap Steyn will be honoured officially for his contribution to Afrikaans as an academic language at the end of this month, he only became aware of his nomination after he had won the award.

According to this research fellow in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, German and French at the University of the Free State (UFS), he is grateful for the recognition. He has recently been awarded the Jan H Marais Prize for his outstanding contribution to Afrikaans.

Former Kovsie honoured together with Prof Jan van der Watt
According to a statement by the South African Academy for Science and Arts, the award was jointly made to Prof Steyn, who is probably the best-known South African language historian, and Prof Jan van der Watt van Nijmegen from the Netherlands. The prize money of R500 000, which they will share, will be presented in Stellenbosch on 30 May 2017.

Prof Steyn is a former Kovsie, who was a research professor at the UFS from 1985 to 1997, and at the age of 78 is still a research fellow. “After the announcement of the prize, I learnt that I was nominated by two of my colleagues,” he says.

His most difficult work was probably also his best

Over the past 50 years several of his publications, biographies, and books have seen the light. He believes that nothing one does is perfect. His most difficult work was the biography of NP van Wyk Louw. “It was probably also my best work,” he says. “The book I enjoyed working on most, was the biography of the author MER, or ME Rothmann.”

Prof Steyn has also received awards such as the Stals Prize, the Louis Hiemstra Prize, the NP van Wyk Louw medal, and honorary membership from the South African Academy for Science and Arts.

He says the staff in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, German and French are very friendly and helpful to still render him assistance as a research fellow.


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