The engineers this century

Nigerian engineers during training on NigeriaSat-X. PHOTO: www.sstl.co.uk

Let me begin with the obvious, at least obvious to this audience. Engineers are problem solvers; we are trained to solve human problems! An important prerequisite to solving a problem is being able to define it. Actually, this makes engineering fairly unique, compared to many other disciplines. It is often said that scientists want to know why as the end in itself; but the engineer wants to know why, as a means to the end, which is how.

In some other disciplines, people simply want to talk about issues. In my current role, I work with very bright people, intellectuals from a wide variety of disciplines. Many a time, as an engineer, while they are talking about issues, my engineering mind is here, and what can I do to.

In the next few minutes, I will attempt to define the problem facing Nigerian engineering education, as I see it within the global landscape. Then, I will suggest some solution pathways.

My current responsibility as Vice Provost for Global Programmes at Penn State over the past decade has given me a fairly unique vantage point as I have interacted with higher education leaders across the globe. I have become an avid student of global higher education in general and engineering education in particular. This has given me a broad perspective on the global landscape of higher education – in addition to that of the U.S! Let me state, with all humility, that what I would be sharing is heavily influenced by my global lenses!

My Basic thesis: Let me submit upfront what I believe. We need to train globally competitive and locally relevant engineers in the 21st Century.

In the next few minutes, I would like to define some of the salient issues confronting Engineering Education in Nigeria. I will then discuss potential resolution strategies. In doing so, I will like to go beyond the usual prescription that I receive from colleagues in Nigerian Universities, which is lack of funding. And yes, funding is needed, but we need much more valuable commodity, innovative ideas and approaches to engineering education.

Before we can completely define the problem, we must discuss the environment. In Thermodynamics, you can only define the system as a subset of the environment. The environment influences the behaviour of the system. So, the first thing that we must do is to look at the global imperatives for engineering education in the 21st Century and the need to think globally and to be globally engaged in the 21st Century; the so-called global century. I will then address those imperatives within the context of Nigeria.

The world framework suggests a Darwinian model for globalisation. On one hand, the breaking of barriers is beneficial because it increases our interconnectivity, which is a good thing.

It compels us to realise our interdependence and allows for the open sharing of information. If done right, it could make us better global citizens, better stewards of our environment, and certainly better stewards of our limited resources.

On the other hand, this level playing field could result in the less powerful nations with fewer resources – falling prey to the more powerful and better-resourced nations, just like the gazelle falls prey to the lion!

In contrast, consider another scenario in the Serengeti where lions would sometimes cooperate to kill a bigger game, like wildebeest. Once downed, they all gather together, without much fighting and with each having her fill! And the opposite effect happens when the wildebeest bunch together; the lion would always retreat, because there is strength in cooperation! Collaborative engagement is the key to success, especially in the 21st Century.

From the foregoing, we can see something that defines the global landscape in the 21st Century. The salient ones are:
1. Managing limited natural resources with a burgeoning population.
2. Maintaining the integrity of the environment with growth.
3. Global Interdependence and ability to function as a global citizen.

It is within this global context that I will examine some of the issues facing engineering education in Nigeria.

Issue No. 1: One-Dimensional Training
The first issue I see with Engineering Education in Nigeria is that it is largely one-dimensional. It is strong on technical knowledge – on facts! The student receives an incredible dose of technical knowledge but little else!

Engineering students do not dabble into subjects like history, arts, music, economics, management, international relations, or psychology. Nor are they provided what is called soft skills communication, leadership, team building, etc. Even more damaging is that they are not taught how to integrate disparate knowledge in a coherent fashion to address emerging unfamiliar problems.

After all, the job of the engineers is to solve human problems by creating products and processes that make life better for human; so it might be useful for the engineer to have some understanding of the people whose lives they are attempting to make better.

It would be useful for them to have some idea about the market forces that shape the adoption of their product and process. Need I say more!
I will submit that they need to be trained to think three-dimensionally – the technical dimension, the environmental dimension and the human dimension. Engineers must remind ourselves that their goal is not creating a product or process, but rather to make life better for people. It therefore makes sense for us to attempt to understand the people for whom we are creating product or process.
Prof. Adewunmi is the Vice Provost, for Global Programmes and Professor of Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering  at the Pennsylvania State University, Park, PA United States of America.

We must also realise that we only have this small planet, Earth, with rapidly burgeoning population putting much pressure on limited non-renewable resources, and thus putting into jeopardy the welfare of future generations.

The world is not as simple as it once was. Global economic order, the Internet, they are all realties of the 21st Century. We are all interdependent, hence we need to work together collaboratively while also competing to be our best. Future engineers will need to work alongside people from around the world, in a variety of capacities. In order to do so, they must be well rounded; they must understand how to operate in a global world. They must understand and harness cultural nuances.

Issue 2: Ignoring Local Context
The second issue is that engineering education in Nigeria is almost completely divorced from the reality of students’ life experiences. Let me give an example: A Nigerian student, who grew up in the rural area, having been successful in the relevant exams, is admitted to study Mechanical Engineering, say at UNILAG. Having grown up in such an environment, water is fetched from the stream, cloth washing is done by hand using native soap, fields are cultivated using hoes and cutlasses, etc. Basically, he has accumulated years of experience in simple agrarian life.

Then, this student arrives at UNILAG. The first days in class, his professor begins the lesson by talking about designing automation of driverless cars. Why because that is what is making the news in the U.S. This poor student has never even seen the inside of an internal combustion engine. The student is left to imagine the unimaginable rather than building on what she is familiar with using her previous knowledge as a building block. This student is forced to learn everything from up- down rather than ground-up. He not only needs to grasp basic engineering concepts, he needs to imagine a context that is so foreign to him that you might as well be talking about the Mars!

This type of education ignores the students’ life journey and suddenly transposed into a different stratosphere. So much of the knowledge gained over the course of her life is now declared irrelevant, during his engineering training! That creates what we often refer to in mathematical modeling as a jump discontinuity. It would have been more effective to provide an opportunity for an open sharing of experiences, and then build a coherent value-adding knowledge. I would suggest that it is much more relevant than knowledge that is Western-centric!

Here is another example. When I was an Engineering student, many years ago, all my textbooks in Petroleum Engineering had one thing in common – they all focused on oil fields in Texas. This is because all of my textbooks came from the United States.

Now obviously, the issue of Western cultural dominance extends beyond Engineering and even beyond academics but to me, this is particularly outrageous. We do not need to look to Texas for examples of Petroleum fields; we do not even need to look elsewhere in Africa! After all, Nigeria is the number one producer of oil on the African continent, and has been for some time. Our students should be learning about our own Petroleum fields!

This type of training desensitizes students to their own local contexts. It, in effect, reduces the amount of stake they feel they have in Nigeria, divorcing them from the reality of their own country and people.

As the Vice Provost for Global Programmes, one of my mottos is “Think Globally, Act Locally.” If we do not find a way to educate our students about the issues relevant to Nigeria, we cannot expect them to act on those issues.

Issue 3: Job Expectations
The third issue I see in Engineering Education is the issue of job expectations. Most Nigerians attend engineering schools and expect that when they graduate, a multinational corporation would employ them, and enjoy good earnings for the rest of their working life.

While this view of the profession may have been true at one time, though certainly not for everyone, the present reality is much more complex, even in developed countries.

We no longer live in a “punch-in, punch-out” world. He/she should be thinking on how to create value by solving local problems and bringing such solutions to the market place, thereby creating jobs, rather seeking jobs! There are so many problems waiting to be solved. If engineers have solutions to any of these problems, there are people willing to pays for it.

In order to do this, engineers do not only need technical knowledge; they need a variety of skills, and the correct mindset, to succeed in the new Global Century. Life-long learning is needed to continuously re-tool for the ever-changing world.
With these issues briefly defined, now, it is time to suggest what can be done to fix it.
Educating Successful Engineers for the 21st Century.

To be continued tomorrow.
Excerpts from the lecture delivered by Prof. Michael Adewumi, at the 2017 Annual Lecture of the Nigerian Academy of Engineering (NAEngr) in Lagos.

Prof. Adewunmi is the Vice Provost, for Global Programmes and Professor of Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering  at the Pennsylvania State University, Park, PA United States of America.

In this article:
Michael AdewumiNAEngrUNILAG


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