The engineers this century – Part 3

By Michael Adewumi   |   02 August 2017   |   4:04 am  

This is the situation with the current engineering education in Nigeria. Students come to us with such a rich experiences/background and so much to offer and we ignore their potential in order to mold them into what we believe they must be like a typical western-centric engineer.

President Barron likens this approach to buying a sports car , he uses the example of a Corvette and drive it at 20 miles per hour. Essentially, you are ignoring all of the potential and, in fact, misusing the car. What is the point of paying hefty price for a sports car if you are not going to put your foot to the pedal?

This is the situation with the current engineering education in Nigeria. Students come to us with such a rich experiences/background and so much to offer and we ignore their potential in order to mold them into what we believe they must be like a typical western-centric engineer.

Take, for example, a typical Nigerian child. A typical Nigerian child has undeniable entrepreneurial experience. I know when I was a child, I used to hawk goods for my mother at the marketplace, and I know that I was not the only one!

Nigerian children, through life experience, have an innate understanding of the town that sells baskets, they can charge more than if they have a competitor. Nigerians already have entrepreneurial spirit; all they need is some formal training, which builds on concepts, which they already know.

So instead of teaching about oil reservoirs in Texas; instead of talking about an internal combustion engine; let us incorporate existing knowledge into the curriculum. Let us learn from the highly skilled weavers in Nigeria perhaps after we know enough, we could help design a better weaving machine! And let us learn about Nigerian oil fields – not American ones.

It is imperative to use local knowledge and understanding. The curriculum must first be localized before the knowledge gained can be used globally.
Step 2: Three-dimensional education

Beyond localising the curriculum, we must also make it multi-faceted. We must build on the inherent experiences of Nigerians, yes; but we must also give them tools to expand their skills and their ways of thinking. We must, in essence, teach them to think three-dimensionally. They can no longer rely on getting a steady, long-term job right out of university. We must teach them to find ways to create jobs, not just work them.

Engineers must have some level of competency in a variety of areas. Therefore, we must offer and require courses in areas such as economics, business, international politics, foreign languages, marketing, psychology, and the like. A well-rounded engineer will be built for success in the Global Century.

This goes beyond offering separate courses, however. In fact, these concepts must be integrated into the Engineering curriculum itself. Engineers must be trained within an interdisciplinary framework, and must learn this within their Engineering courses as well as outside of them. It is a complete paradigm shift but one that is necessary.

Let me give you a possible example. Let us say that an Engineer discovers a new chemical composition that makes good, quality cloth-washing detergent for a lower cost than other soaps. If they do not already work for a soap company, what are they to do? Perhaps they could sell this new discovery to Leventis. But how would they know whether that was the right decision to make? And what if they wanted to start up their own company?

We must teach engineers, both conceptually and practically, how to file patents, handle marketing and advertising, and even in some cases how to figure out an entirely new delivery system for a product. In essence, we must teach them to think “beyond the job”
Step 3: Creative application for local and global problems

My final suggestion follows this thinking. You see, in Nigeria, we produce thousands of engineers every year. The vast majority of them are at the very least competent; very many of them are high quality; and, I know for a fact we have some excellent engineering minds in this country. Despite all of this, Nigeria still lacks basic infrastructure. Why is this?

We are an oil-rich country the number one producer on the African continent, with possibly the lowest cost of production per barrel in the world and yet many of our citizens are completely without power. Even in major cities like Lagos, most citizens can only truly rely on a supply of electricity for a few hours per day.

Obviously, these issues are multifaceted and heavily systemic. However, at the most basic level, I believe that a large part of the problem is that these Nigerian engineers are not thinking of the bigger picture. This needs to change. To succeed, both individually and as a country, Nigerian engineers in the 21st century must be resourceful, creative and be locally relevant.

They must use the resourcefulness of their childhood of their local context and apply it to larger issues.Nigerian family homes some of you may even have used them yourselves some time on your lives. These are clay pots used to keep water cool naturally they serve almost the purpose of natural refrigerator! These clay pots are truly incredible. They are simple, but incredibly effective. Why has no one researched the properties of these clay pots, improve its performance and searched for other applications?

Another example. In many areas, mostly in the more rural parts of Nigeria, many families still use Kerosene lamps as a light source at night. We now know the Kerosene is harmful to health. What if we found a way to use solar lamps? Nigeria gets plenty of sun. It would save families money on buying Kerosene, and may very well save lives. So why are we not working on this possibility?

Engineers must begin to think holistically. They must combine the technical, the entrepreneurial, the local, and the global. They must, in essence, always ask, “What is the real issue here, and what can we do to fix it?

The role of the NAE
As the body of the foremost engineering thinkers in Nigeria, NAE has an important role to play in this process. If you think, as I do, that we must make fundamental changes to the way we educate engineers, then I encourage you to lead the way in spearheading this new approach.

There are some possible ways in which NAE can make a difference. Some are mentioned below:
1. Informed Policy- persuading policy makers to hands-off engineering education.
2. Curriculum reform-that avoids cookie-cutter approach but seeks innovation.
3. Contextualisation by ensuring seamless integration between the local and the global.
4. Outcome-focused – pursue outcome-based engineering education.
5. Making use of the diaspora community to rapidly deploy army of technocrats to help.

The 21st C. needs a different type of engineers that was needed in the 20th C. Engineering schools in the U.S. and much of the developed countries recognise this and they are working hard to make amend. I am part of this process for my discipline. But, we cannot and must not wait and copy their product the result of what is best for the western-centric engineer. We must come up with a home- grown solution that respects our values, our cultures and even our idiosyncrasies, but more importantly our local context. The guiding principle must be an outcome-based engineering education, in which we must define upfront what we want the Nigerian engineer of the 21st century to know and be. We, as NAE must provide the much needed leadership provide an effective framework within which for the engineering teachers could use their creative talents to foster. Now is the time for NAE to be asking the important engineering principle to engineering education:

We must blend the local with the global. We must leverage our resources a home and dispersed all over the world. We must solve problems like Nigerians, using all of the expertise and life experience we have gained, rather than trying to force ourselves to think in the mold of Euro-American centric way.If we make these fundamental changes, I truly believe that Nigerian engineers will prosper in the Global Century.

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, U S A.

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