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“SAEON opens doors to great opportunities”

By Pontso Mothibeli, a learner from Emang Mmogo Comprehensive School & Omphile Khutsoane, Science Engagement Officer, SAEON Arid Lands Node
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A flashback to grade 9, where it all started…

When I was first introduced to different scientists and possible science careers during our grade 9 science workshop, I didn’t find it fascinating. I thought to myself that SAEON is probably one of those career guidance initiatives that comes only once and then vanishes.

To my surprise, SAEON was so much more than mere career guidance. I remember in detail the first workshop we had with SAEON at Mokala National Park the year I was in grade 9. I was one of a few selected learners from Emang Mmogo Comprehensive School, Thabane High School and Greenpoint High School who were interacting with different professional scientists.

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Learners show signs of happiness after a long day of fieldwork at Mokala National Park

For me this was a turning point in how I felt about the world of science. Not only did we learn about environmental safety, but we were also introduced to the interaction of plants and animals, and human impact that has a negative effect on the nature of our environment.

Words of wisdom

Since we had committed ourselves to the SAEON education programme, we were by now officially called ‘SAEON Kids’ by Mama Sibongile Mokoena, the former coordinator of the science education programme. Such a strong woman of wisdom and great skills of leadership!

Her talk during our grade 9 workshop had an impact on most of us choosing our subjects in grade 10 - we were totally convinced by her words of wisdom that we can always achieve so long as we focus, and by engaging in every opportunity that we are offered.

In addition to that, I remember Mama Sibongile’s words about the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists. She said that entering was not only about competing and winning a medal… whether it’s a bronze, silver or even gold medal it would be meaningless if we don’t use the knowledge to work towards the goal of making the world a better place. This is a competition where every person is free to contribute to the vision of making the world a better place; it is not so much about winning, but about what you’re able to do as an individual to make a difference.

Inspired by Mama Sibongile, the learners committed themselves to the education programme. They were given opportunities like science camps, workshops and field excursions, where they were involved in hands-on activities such as vegetation monitoring.

An interesting aspect about our science camps is that they advance each year and learners engage in different types of activities. During the Grade 11 camp, we were exposed to completely different things. The key component was to study the different types of habitats by determining the percentage cover of different aspects in our study sites. As we now know, every species requires a suitable living environment to be able to survive. The study gave us insight into the preferred habitats of the different species.

Education Symposium

It has become tradition for SAEON to have an annual Education Symposium at one of their six nodes across the country. The event provides learners with a platform to share the learning experiences they gained during SAEON’s Science Engagement Programme. Each node decides on a specific study to present at the symposium.

This year I was selected to represent the Arid Lands Node. The symposium was held in Cape Town, hosted by SAEON’s Egagasini Node.

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Pontso arrives at Cape Town International Airport (Picture: Omphile Khutsoane)                                                                                             

Learners tour a ship docked in Cape Town harbour. From left: Ntako Nyathi, Pontso Mothibeli, crew member and Simamkele Kwenxe (Picture: Omphile Khutsoane)

SAEON opens doors to great opportunities

I had my first experience of flying during the trip to Cape Town to attend the symposium. I will never forget that day.

On my way to the airport I was excited, but kept calm. We finally arrived at the airport and I boarded a plane for the first time. As the plane was gearing to take off, I prayed that I won’t get sick, throw up and embarrass myself. I was grateful that didn’t happen. I’m lucky to be the first one in my grade in my school to fly. No doubt, I made my school proud.

We arrived at Cape Town International Airport, and headed straight to the hotel where the team was accommodated. Yet again, it was my first experience of staying in a hotel. When I thought I had seen it all, they took us to the beach. Seeing the beach in real life was so surreal; a breath-taking experience.

The next day - 6 September 2017 - was the day everyone had been waiting for. I met representatives from all the SAEON nodes across the country. Our day started by visiting the harbour, where we were taken on a tour of a ship. I was blown away by the interior of the ship - it looked like a house, something I never saw before.

The tour taught me that, when you are a crew member, you need to be passionate about your work and willing to be away from home for long periods of time. As learners, we were asked if we might consider being crew members as a career, and we laughed and said, “it’s hard to stay away from your loved ones for more than six months at a time, so the decision is a difficult one to make”.

After the tour, it was time for the symposium. In her opening address, Kogie Govender, SAEON’s new science engagement coordinator, explained the importance of science, how SAEON assists in keeping the world of science growing, and how its Science Engagement Programme helps learners to make informed career choices.

Next on the programme was a presentation by a young scientist from the University of Cape Town. I was motivated by his work and saw myself in him. His journey from a small town in the Free State Province to the big city inspired me and made me think that I can also do it.

Then it was time for the learners’ presentations. I was the first presenter, representing the Arid Lands Node. My presentation was based on vegetation monitoring, focusing on the study of different habitats. Learners from the other nodes also shared their scientifically formulated and well-presented results.

After the presentations all the learners were given science-related books as gifts. The fun and learning did not stop there; the troop was taken on a tour around the beautiful City of Cape Town and went to a place called “Network”, from where we had a perfect view of Table Mountain and Robben Island.

The learners furthermore had the opportunity to expand their knowledge and experience by visiting the memorable Robben Island Museum, where all the history of Nelson Mandela’s life is kept and the Two Oceans Aquarium, where almost all sorts of aquatic animals interact.

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Members of the SAEON group enjoy the antics of turtles at Two Oceans Aquarium (Picture: Omphile Khutsoane)

Pontso admires the view at Greenpoint Stadium (Picture: Omphile Khutsoane)

Pontso expressed her gratitude by saying how grateful she was for the wonderful opportunity that SAEON had given her: “To experience such an awesome adventure is a one in a thousand opportunity. I was inspired and surely do believe now with all my heart that with science one can go far in life. Thank you so much, SAEON, for being a contributing factor to a positive goal-setting of being a good scientist … and one day I will travel the world and go beyond Cape Town.”

Pontso concluded by saying that the learners who were involved with SAEON were always content with what the programme offered. “Because of that if I find myself in the field of environmental science - the career that I would like to follow is Botany.”

For both the SAEON team and the learners the past three years haven’t always been easy, but we still get to say “SAEON rocks, we are the best SAEON Kids to experience the best of science camps and workshops, we benefited a lot from the programme.”

Hopefully the learners will continue being part of the SAEON family even though everyone of us will go our separate ways after grade 12.

Science Engagement Officer Omphile Khutsoane added that overall, the school performance of learners engaged in SAEON’s education programme keeps getting better. This illustrates the programme’s advantage to learners in terms of academic performance. “SAEON is proud of our hardworking learners,” she said.

No scientist can say ‘I’m good enough for my profession’; scientists never cease to be curious, that for sure is the beauty of science. Pontso Mothibeli

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