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Science graduate inspires youth

Mar 19 2017 06:00
Veronica Mohapeloa

Johannesburg - Obtaining a tertiary qualification in mathematics or science is no small feat and opens doors to a variety of careers.

Given South Africa’s apartheid past, such a qualification is particularly life-changing for black graduates, making it sought after in today’s highly competitive job market.

High-paying jobs, overseas teaching careers, or even securing funding to conduct research for postgraduate studies are possible ... the world is your oyster.

But for Itumeleng Molefi, these lucrative possibilities held little appeal. The 27-year-old physical science graduate, with an honours degree from the University of the Witwatersrand, preferred to return to his community.

Itumeleng teaches physical science to grades nine to 12 at the local high school in the small Karoo town of Carnarvon.

The construction of the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), has catapulted the little-known town on to the world’s astronomy stage, with the SKA core site only 80km away.

Carnarvon has been bedevilled by social problems for years, as the town had few job opportunities and no significant industries.

But since the start of the SKA South Africa (SKA SA) project, an initiative of the department of science and technology (DST) that is run by its National Research Foundation, the town has seen a boost in local economic development.

Government continues to support the SKA SA project. In this year’s State of the Nation Address, President Jacob Zuma welcomed the DST’s implementation of a technology localisation strategy that would see high-end electronics and mechanical systems developed locally for the MeerKAT telescope.

The MeerKAT is being constructed on the SKA site in the Northern Cape as a precursor to the SKA-1. It will consist of an array of 64 dishes and will be by far the most powerful radio telescope in the world until the SKA is completed.

Zuma said the technology localisation strategy had ensured that the R2 billion MeerKAT telescope was constructed with 75% local content.

“This has led to job creation in the Northern Cape and the diversification of the economy through the creation of artisan and maintenance jobs, and the promotion of science as a career of choice,” Zuma said.

And, while the mega building project is only expected to be completed in 2050, the widespread spin-offs – including infrastructure development, the establishment of knowledge centres, and social investment through bursary opportunities – are already transforming lives, especially in Carnarvon.

Itumeleng is one those who has benefited from the social investments, receiving an SKA SA bursary for his honours degree. After obtaining his postgraduate qualification, Itumeleng chose to teach, as he is passionate about helping to improve lives.

It was no easy journey, and he describes his first year of teaching as a learning curve.

“I was one of those people who used to believe that I knew all the problems in education and I was going to be a teacher and solve all those problems. I think you only start to realise what the actual problems are and how difficult it is to solve them once you are inside,” he says.

As is the case elsewhere in the country, quality science education is lacking in Carnarvon.

However, with teachers like Itumeleng making a difference, the quality of physical science teaching for high school learners has improved.

The turnaround at Carnarvon High has resulted in the school winning national science competitions.

Itumeleng proudly remembers the 2015 Eskom Expo for Young Scientists competition, the first in which a Carnarvon learner participated. A Grade 9 learner won a bronze medal for his project.

The school has since entered 12 learners in the competition, and obtained a bronze and a silver medal at regional level.

But for him it’s more than just winning competitions or passing subjects, it’s also about learning to solve problems using physical science skills.

“My personal goal is to try to have pupils take something away, to learn something, even if it is just the difference between an independent and a dependent variable, which is something you can use in real life.”

Itumeleng may be new to the teaching profession, but he is already displaying the wisdom of an old hand. He believes transforming lives is about more than just teaching science; it is also about instilling discipline and general life skills.

“Over a period of 12 months, I can see the change and I think they are learning some lessons that will stay with them for the rest of their lives, such as the importance of punctuality.”

The Carnarvon High School story shows how science can transform lives.

As Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor said recently during a science engagement event, “We now see with the young people … that astronomy and science can change communities, can change lives, can create opportunity, and can build new human capital in areas never imagined.”

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