"Educating Engineers for Africa in the 21st Century" - AMRS Conference, Botswana (12/11/2017)

Educating Engineers for Africa in the 21st Century

Michael Adewumi, PhD, FNSE

Vice Provost for Global Programs

Professor of Petroleum & Natural Gas Engineering

The Pennsylvania State University

University, Park, PA 16802

December 11th, 2017


Thank you very much for your nice introduction. I am delighted to have this opportunity to share a few thoughts on the topic of how we educate engineers for Africa in the Global Century.  


Educating engineers to power the industrial development of Africa is an urgent task. And it is a task that I really believe that this group must make a top priority. And let me be clear: I am not just talking about numbers. I am talking about the relevance and the mindset of the engineers that this continent needs.

I am an engineer. And I was trained on the continent of Africa, albeit at a different time, and perhaps for a different set of circumstances. I will be blunt: I wouldn't train an engineer today the way I was trained, more than four decades ago. Don't get me wrong - I received arguably some of the best training in the world at that time. But, naturally, what was good at that time is no longer adequate for the 21st Century.

I would begin with the obvious, at least obvious to this audience: engineers are problem solvers – we are trained to solve problems – human problems! An important prerequisite to solving a problem is being able to define it. If we can’t define a problem, then how can we solve it!

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, "and so what?" In other words, the engineer wants to know how to utilize the newly-acquired scientific knowledge to create a product, or processes - something that could make life better for people.

In recent years, when I speak with certain colleagues – who shall remain nameless! – about the future of engineering, many of them bring up cutting-edge technologies, such as nanotechnology. They speak endlessly about innovations such as driverless cars or Elon Musk’s Hyperloop project. “This is the future of engineering,” they tell me.

Well, with all due respect - I am not sure that I agree! At least, not in the context of Africa. Now, if we are training all engineers to work in the U.S. and other developed countries, that may very well be true. But in Africa, nothing could be further from the truth. Now, I know that in the audience, I have some of the best nano-material scientists in the world. And some of them are trying to use that knowledge to solve some of the common problems in Africa.

I applaud that! What they are doing is contextualizing the application of the knowledge gained, rather than assuming that the knowledge being acquired will always serve a certain community. We must adapt applications of knowledge to the environment in which it is needed! And since engineers are applicators of scientific knowledge to real-life problems, their training must, of necessity, take the environment into account.

In fact, if you will indulge me, I would like to take just a few minutes before I begin my presentation to share with you a brief video which shows what the true soul of engineering will be in the 21st century – what it must be, in order for Africa to thrive.


Slide 2: Solar Light Bottle Program: The Philippines


This video encapsulates everything that I believe about engineering, especially in the 21st C. For example, I would like to draw your attention to one specific phrase, uttered at the end of the video – “third world solutions for third world problems.” Another way of saying it might be: “thinking globally while acting locally.” This is the soul of the future of engineering in Africa. We cannot continue to train engineers to think like Westerners and try to pursue Western ideals of engineering. For Africa to thrive, we must train engineers to think like Africans and solve African problems – by whatever means they can!

I will be referencing the content of this video throughout my presentation. It presents a compelling case study in resourcefulness as well as multi-dimensional thinking - which is the primary skill needed by African engineers in the 21st C.

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

My current responsibility of providing leadership and oversight to all of Penn State's int'l engagements 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 as an engineer myself, I have become especially interested in engineering education globally.  This has given me a broad perspective on the global landscape of higher education - in addition to that of the US! Let me state, with all humility, that what I would be sharing is heavily influenced by my global lenses!

My Basic Thesis

This is what I believe: we need to train locally-relevant and globally-competitive engineers for Africa in the 21st Century.

In the balance of time remaining, I would like to define some of the salient issues confronting Engineering Education in Africa. I will then discuss potential resolution strategies. In doing so, I will like to go beyond the usual prescription that I receive from my African colleagues, which is lack of money. And yes, money is needed, but we need a much more valuable commodity – innovative ideas and approaches to engineering education.

Before we can completely define the problem, we must discuss the environment. In solving a Thermodynamic problem, we must define the system as well as the environment. The environment influences the behavior of the system. So, the first thing that we must do is to look at the global imperatives for engineering education in the 21st C - in the African context.

I will explore today’s global landscape and will discuss some of the imperatives for engineering education 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 Africa at-large.


Slide 4: Global Century: African Context

Normally at this point in my remarks, I would begin by borrowing from the work of the best-selling author and popular New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman. Mr. Friedman’s writing on globalization is very well-respected. In fact, he is my favorite author on the subject.

But for the African context, we must be more critical of Mr. Friedman's work and its assumptions. In fact, I undertook such an exercise a few years ago when I co-taught a course on Mr. Friedman's 2005 Bestseller, The World is Flat. In the book, Mr. Friedman argues that the world is becoming "flatter" - that, in fact, the playing field is becoming more level between developed and developing countries.

I taught the course, which included students from all around the world, with a colleague who is a geographer. He, of course, disagrees that the world is flat! The center of the class revolved around the question: Is the world truly "flat," as Mr. Friedman claimed? Are the world's developing countries truly being placed on an equal playing field?

In the course, we split students into groups. They had to debate with each other about global issues and whether the world was indeed flat. We had a 50-50 split arguing either way - by design. At the end of the class, we had the students give presentations on particular subjects and argue one way or the other - the world is flat or the world is not flat.

As I have said before, Mr. Friedman is one of my favorite authors. I went into the class assuming that I would side with the "World is Flat." But I was shocked to discover that the students' presentations swayed me and made me question my beliefs. You see, the students came to the conclusion that the world is not flat - it is, in fact, tilted to the favor of some and not others. The global system gives advantages to developed countries and disadvantages to developing countries. This can happen locally too, by the way – within countries or even cities!


Slide 5: In the Serengeti

To be fair, Friedman may have been talking about this very issue when he writes about his vision of the world made up of lions and gazelles—lions being the world’s superpowers and gazelles being the developing countries.

It is easy, when viewed through this lens, to see that lions and gazelles have different contexts. Though they share the same living space - just as we Africans share the world with Americans and Europeans - their environments are much different. Lions are not concerned with larger predators coming after them. They have different strengths, different needs, and different wants than gazelles. By the way - lions are carnivores, while gazelles are herbivores! So, the lions are on the top of the food chain - just like developed countries are on the top of the food chain.

Now, imagine if someone tried to teach a gazelle to live like a lion! The gazelle's previous experiences do not lend themselves to hunting, or any of the other aspects of a lion's life. We do not teach the gazelle to solve the lion's problems, like lions! No!

And yet, this is what we do to our engineering students. We teach them to solve Western problems using Western ideals of engineering. In essence, we work with the assumption that acquired knowledge will be relevant in any context, when in fact it is only relevant in one context - the Western context. This must change!

Of course, there are issues which affect lions and gazelles alike. It is easy to imagine a violent storm which would force lions and gazelles alike to flee, or a volcanic eruption which would do the same. It would be important for lion and gazelle alike to be able to recognize the danger. In this context, global issues - such climate change, population explosion, energy insecurity - are global imperatives that affect all humanity.

In order to educate engineers for Africa in the 21st C., they must be knowledgeable about these global imperatives while also working to fix problems in their local contexts. In essence, they must think globally and act locally - a simple, but profound statement. Put differently, we need to train engineers who are globally competent and locally relevant for Africa. In order for them to have the required knowledge to do this, we must re-examine the ways in which we train engineers.

Let me dwell on some of the major obstacles that I see in training globally competent and locally relevant engineers in Africa for the 21st C. I will also suggest some solution pathways around these obstacles.


Obstacle 1: Ignoring Local Context

The first obstacle I see with engineering education in Africa is that it often ignores local contexts.

Let me give you an illustrative example. Let's consider a Nigerian student - and I am using Nigeria generically in this context; it could have been Botswana! She grew up in the rural area; having been successful in the relevant exams, she is admitted to study Mechanical Engineering, say at the University of Lagos.

Having grown up in rural Nigeria, her water is fetched from the stream, cloth washing is done by hand using native soap, fields are cultivated using hoes and cutlasses, etc. Basically, she has accumulated years of experience in simple agrarian life. She may live in an area that looks something like the picture to the left.


Then, this student arrives at the university. The first days in class, her professor begins the lesson by talking about designing automated cars – driverless cars - like the one on the right. Why – because that’s what is making the news in the US.  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 his previous knowledge as a building block. This student is forced to learn everything from up-down rather than ground-up. She not only needs to grasp basic engineering concepts, she is forced to imagine a context that is so foreign to her that you might as well be talking about Mars!


Tic-Tac-Toe Game

In fact, this example is not so far from an experience I once had myself. When I arrived in the U.S. to begin my Ph.D. work, one of the first courses I took was FORTRAN programming. Now, I don't know how many of the younger generation will even know what FORTRAN is about - but it is a programming language used by scientists and engineers. And, before I got to graduate school, I actually had a fairly good background in FORTRAN programming. So I thought, "this class is going to be easy." But at the end of the first lecture, the professor gave us an assignment that almost made me cry. The assignment was for us to write a computer program to play a "tic-tac-toe" game with a computer. If we were successful in beating the computer, we get an A. And, being used to getting "A's," I knew immediately that I was in trouble - because I had no idea what "tic-tac-toe" was!

I was so upset that I went to my room almost in tears. I had a roommate, a PhD student in another department. I explained my dilemma to him. Being an American, he of course understood the game. He went ahead and explained the game to me. After some struggle, I was able to write the code.

Now, when this professor gave this assignment, he made the simple assumption that everyone in the class was familiar with tic-tac-toe - that they had played it all their lives. I happened to be the only non-American student in that class. Thus, put in a different context, I really looked dumb. Now, this may be an extreme example. But sometimes I feel that that is what we do to some of our students in classrooms - even on the African continent! We give examples that are alien to them; we give contexts that are foreign to them; and we expect them to excel!

When we do this, we ignore the student’s 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 her 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!

Furthermore, it teaches them to think like a Westerner and to solve Western problems instead of local ones. Can you imagine if Illac Diaz, the social entrepreneur who brought the bottle lamp to the Philippines, had instead been focused on bringing electricity to the villages or - worse yet - electric cars? It would have made little difference in the day-to-day lives of normal Filipinos!


Solution: Integrate Local Knowledge into the Curriculum

Here is a counter-example of someone using engineering principles in their local context. When I was young, I used to spend some time with my uncle in his village. My uncle was unmarried - and so, unlike many men at that time, he had to do his own chores, which included fetching water from the stream.

Now, my uncle was not an engineer. In fact, he did not attend school at all! But, he was ingenious. He decided to build a simple pipeline made out of local material to transport water from the stream to his hut. The first thing he did is to locate a natural fall in the stream, which fell across a rock. So, he was able to locate the inlet of the pipe in that location, giving him enough gravitational head to convey the water to his hut. And with what material? He used bamboo as pipe! Instead of needing to carry a heavy bucket for hundreds of yards when he wanted water, he only had to set up the pipe!

Can you imagine if an engineering student at University of Lagos had begun part of his training by visiting my uncle's invention in action! Perhaps he would have started to think about further applications of using bamboo as a pipeline - perhaps to create an easier way for the entire village to access water!

What I am proposing here is turning the pedagogy "upside-down." We normally think of giving students a lot of theory in the classrooms, and then send them to the field later to learn practical applications. I wonder what would happen if we did the reverse? Send the students to the villages, and the cities - where there are problems staring them in the face! Ask them to seek to understand the problem by speaking with the people who may have been living with the problem for quite some time!

By so doing, they will have successfully defined the problems that have relevance to their community. Afterwards, they can go back to their classrooms, have even more refinement on the definition of these problems. Then, they can begin to proffer some solution strategies based on some theories and principles that they have just learned. Subsequently, they might then go back to the community and attempt to apply their solution and see what happens!

I believe two things will happen: 1) the students will begin to associate what they are learning in the classroom with the real problems in the community; 2) the community will begin to look at the academy through a different set of lenses. They will begin to see them as problem-solvers who are attempting to make their lives better, instead of cold academics sitting in the ivory tower - whose efforts have no relevance to their lives.

By the way, I have the sneaking feeling that this is how engineering began in the first place. Engineering did not begin inside of a classroom. I am no historian of engineering, but I suspect that my uncle did exactly what the earliest engineers did - they saw a problem and thought, "How do I fix this?" Then, they used local resources to do so. I wonder how we got so far away from this type of approach to engineering education - to the point where we now do all of our teaching in a classroom. Our current approach desensitizes students from their own local context. It, in effect, reduces the amount of stake they feel they have in their local communities, divorcing them from the reality of their own country and people.

I am not at all arguing that classroom learning is unnecessary! Students must possess acquire basic technical knowledge - thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, strength of materials, et cetera. But, they also must be fully aware of the issues facing not only their local communities, but the world at large. They must think globally and act locally. However, if we do not find a way to educate our students about the issues relevant to their home contexts, we cannot expect them to act on those issues - we cannot expect them to improve Africa if we do not allow them to learn from African contexts!

Students come to us with such rich experiences and backgrounds and so much to offer – and we ignore their background and life experiences; we intellectually transport them into a totally different context in which they have little or no experience at all. We do this all in the name of molding them into what we think they must be – a typical western-centric engineer. We are underutilizing their potential as one of Africa's most potent resources!


Corvette Analogy

I will borrow an analogy often used by Penn State's President, Eric Barron, when he implores the students to take full advantage of the enormous resources provided by a world-class research institution like Penn State. He says to them, "you have access to some of the best scholars in the world as your faculty. Why restrict yourself to just interacting with them in the classrooms? Why not get involved in the cutting-edge research in their labs? Maybe you will learn a thing or two that will change your perspective!" And then, he says to them, "it's like paying for a Corvette, but driving it like a Ford! Why drive a Corvette at 20mph?"

Essentially, he is saying that you are underutilizing the full potential of the car, which is what you paid for. What’s the point of using paying the hefty price for a sports car if you are not going to put your foot to the pedal! And, indeed, what is the point of an African engineering student having extensive relevant local knowledge if their subsequent education is simply going to ignore it!

All I am saying is that we need to localize our engineering curriculum in Africa.


Obstacle No. 2: One-Dimensional Training

The second obstacle I see with Engineering Education in Africa is that our curriculum 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 problems.

Now, one might ask, “Why do engineers need to study these subjects?” I would argue that it is vital that we do! 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 would 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!


Solution: Offer Multi-Dimensional Training

I will submit to you that today's engineers, particularly in Africa, need to be trained to think in at least three dimensions - the  human dimension, the technical dimension, and the environmental dimension. As engineers, we must remind ourselves that our goal is not just creating a product or a process, but rather to make life better for people. When an engineer creates a free light source, out of locally-available materials, for the betterment of his fellow man - that is an engineer who is thinking in three dimensions!

We must also recognize 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, the economic and environmental interdependence of the earth– these are all realties of the 21st Century. Since we are so interconnected, we must learn 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. Additionally, 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.


Example: Black Soap 

Let me give you a hypothetical example. In many places in Africa, people make their own soaps. Where I grew up, it was called "Black Soap." These soaps are organic and good for the environment.  Let us say that an Engineer discovers a new process which makes creating these soaps easier, more cost-effective, and more marketable. 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 expose Engineers-in-training, both conceptually and practically, the importance of patents and copyrights, marketing and advertising, and even supply chains. They must learn about and understand the problem they are trying to solve before attempting to solve it - and they must recognize the environmental implications of their solution pathway.


Solar Light Bottle Program

Let me briefly return to the bottle program in the video. This program represents a truly three-dimensional thought process. It solves a local problem focused on human need and based on human experience, hence the human dimension; it improves the day-to-day lives of the people, hence, it is locally relevant; it uses material components combined in such a way to create light using only the sun, hence the technical dimension; and it reduces environmental impact of plastic bottles, hence the environmental dimension. In essence, it embodies all the aspects that I have talked about.

I wonder what would happen if engineering students in the Philippines started their studies by visiting the communities and studying this lighting system. Perhaps they might go back to the classroom and begin to research how to improve it. I wonder what would happen if our engineers studied the highly skilled weavers all over Africa - discuss and learn from them; then, they can think about how they may design better weaving machines for these weavers.

Teaching engineers to think holistically can have radical effects on the day-to-day lives of Africans.


Obstacle 3: White-Collar Job Expectations

The third obstacle I see in Engineering Education is the issue of job expectations and career opportunities. Most students attend engineering schools and expect that when they graduate, they would be employed by a multinational corporation, 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. An engineering student should be thinking about how to create value by solving local problems and bringing such solutions to the market place, thereby creating jobs, rather than seeking jobs!

African universities produce thousands of engineers every year. Despite all of this, many of these countries still lack even basic infrastructure. Even the most rudimentary road repair job is given to a foreign contractor. Why?

Many oil-rich African countries still rely on doing the beneficiation outside the country. This approach deprives the country of acquiring the necessary technical expertise and deprives the population of good jobs. The same thing applies to petroleum production! Most of the refineries are outside of the country! 


Solution: Creative Application for Local and Global Problems 

To succeed, both individually and as a continent, African 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. They must be job creators! Just think about the guy from the video, Demi! The solar bottle program was so successful that he had to quit his "punch-in, punch-out" job. And, he even employed others!

One can imagine many reasons for the plight of Africa. The history of Western cultural and economic dominance, and a lack of available funding are two reasons that I hear a lot from colleagues. And they are both true! However, at the most basic level, I believe that a large part of the problem is that African engineers are not thinking of the bigger picture. A man in the Philippines is providing light to thousands of people with nothing but empty plastic bottles, water, chlorine, and a bit of metal. There is little to no funding needed for that - and using Coca-Cola bottles is certainly one way of turning Western consumerism on its head!

We have many African examples, just waiting to be explored in this way. Take, for example, these clay pots. I’m sure many of you have seen these pots in 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 effective. Why are we not encouraging our students to research clay pots and how to design even better-cooling clay pots?

Another example. In many areas, mostly in rural Africa, many families still use oil lamps as a source of lighting at night. The oil might be Kerosene, or palm oil in West Africa. We now know that the fumes from Kerosene are harmful to health. In fact, when I was a Grammar School student, that was the only means for me to study at night - like thousands of my schoolmates. I'm actually sad to say that, several decades later, this is still the case in many parts of rural Africa. What happens to the sun energy? How can we harness it to change the lives of so many?

To succeed in the 21st C - both individually and as a continent - African engineers must be deliberate in seeking local problems to solve and proffering locally-relevant solutions. They must think holistically. They must combine the technical, the entrepreneurial, the local, and the global. They must, in essence, always be working to make life better for people in their local communities. It is the only pathway to success in the 21st C!



The 21st C. needs a different type of engineers than were needed in the 20th C. Engineering schools in the US and much of the developed countries recognize this and they are working hard to make amends. I am part of this process for my own discipline. But, we cannot and must not wait and copy their product – the result of what is best for the American-centric engineer. We must come up with home-grown solutions that take into account values, cultures and even the idiosyncrasies of the people, and equally importantly, the local context.

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 Africans, 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.

Like Illac Diaz for the Philippines, we must find a way to use local resources to make life better for Africans. We must train engineers to think holistically, in three dimensions - the human, the technical,  and the environmental.

If we make these fundamental changes, I truly believe that African engineers will help Africa transform in the Global Century.

Thank you very much for your time. It has been an honor to be here today.