A new generation of South African scientists

Seeking answers about the universe

Building the biggest scientific instrument in history in the Northern Cape
Dr Rob Adam, SKA managing director

The people of the little town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape of South Africa have found themselves – somewhat surprisingly – at the centre of one of the most exciting projects of the century – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Thousands of SKA antenna dishes are being built as part of an international collaboration to create the world’s largest radio telescope. The SKA will attempt to answer some of the most important questions in astrophysics, physics, cosmology and other scientific fields, and to help us understand how the universe evolved, how stars and galaxies form, what dark matter is, and more.

What made this area in the remote Karoo desert the ideal site for the SKA is its remoteness, its sparse population, and the lack of industry. The main activity of the region around the little town has historically been sheep farming. All that is changing.

Dr Rob Adam, SKA managing director, explains: “We are building the biggest scientific instrument in history in the Northern Cape, and since construction started on building the instruments, SKA South Africa has made a change to the lives of the people from Carnarvon, Williston, Vanwyksvlei, Brandvlei and Calvinia, the towns surrounding the SKA site in the Karoo.”

The African SKA Human Capital Development Programme is focused on encouraging and funding students to learn the necessary science, technology, maths and engineering skills to support the project. More than 900 people, ranging from artisans to postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows, have already received bursaries and grants.

The plan is to boost science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching, and encourage young people into these fields. And it is in full swing close to home, at the local Carnarvon High School.

Kyle Henderson (now 20) grew up in Carnarvon, and he’s one of the first people to benefit from the programme. When he started at the local high school, the school did not have a regular maths and science teacher. “It was very difficult,” he says. “I used to study on my own to try and keep up, but it took hours and hours. That changed when the SKA appointed a maths and science teacher for our school.”

As part of SKA’s efforts to boost STEM teaching and encourage young people into these fields, bursaries were offered to students who were studying these subjects. Kyle says, “They want to get more students to do maths and science as a subject until Grade 12 level. I got a bursary in Grade 9. As long as you continue taking those subjects and you pass, you get a bursary for the next year. It motivates you to study hard.”

Kyle was one of the first students from his school ever to matriculate with maths and science, and he’s now gone on to do something almost unheard of – to study science at university.

“In my community, people don’t get the opportunity to study at university,” says Kyle. “Without the SKA, I would not have been able to do this, my parents could not afford it. But the way the bursaries work, if you continue to perform academically, they continue to pay for you. I’m now in second year in a BSc in Computer Science and Physics. And after that, I don’t think I’ll stop. I have the opportunity to do the thing that I love.”

He is animated on the topic of his fascination with science. “I come from a community where people do not study science, in fact they are scared of science. People think maths is just about numbers, but it’s so much more than that, especially now at university level. It’s about the way it teaches you to think. You learn to think untypically about situations, not just in academics, but in life. It’s so interesting and very powerful.”

Bursary recipients don’t have to work at the SKA when they have finished their studies, but Kyle is determined that he wants to be part of this extraordinary project. “People don’t realise how huge the SKA is, and how big the opportunities will be. We are working on some of the most exciting topics in physics. My biggest dream is to work on the big data problems at the SKA, maybe as a software or programme engineer. I am looking forward to being a very good scientist, and to giving my best, for the SKA and for myself.”

As well as the bursary programme and the specialist maths and science teacher, local students are benefiting from a new computer lab, career days, inspiring talks from young scientists, even trips to science fairs.

Other young people in Carnarvon and other towns close to the SKA site are benefitting from training, internships, as well as potential jobs. They will work as electricians, as fitters and turners, in instrumentation and control, in fibre optics and other fields. As the vast data flow starts up, there will be increasing focus on areas like computer skills and data analytics.

“Kyle’s story is a story we want many more students from the Karoo to be able to tell – that with the appropriate education resources in place (especially committed and excellent teachers), and with the right attitude to learning, young people from the most unexpected places can become the next Marie Curie or Issac Newton,” says Kim de Boer, Head: Human Capital Development, South African SKA Project.

Over the next decades, top scientists and research students from all over the world will come to be part of this cutting-edge experiment. And young scientists from the remote town of Carnarvon will be there with them, working to answer the big questions about our universe.

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