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The engineers this century – Part 2

By Michael Adewumi
01 August 2017   |   4:08 am
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.

Nigerian engineers during training on NigeriaSat-X<br />PHOTO:

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.
Beyond merely understanding the technical dimension of the profession, which is, of course, a prerequisite for success 21st century engineers must be three-dimensional thinkers. This means that they must have: Technical competency, local contextualisation and global competency.

The problems facing Nigeria are intricately linked with the rest of the globe, and engineering students must understand this fact. To ensure that they do, some serious changes must be made to the way we train them to the way we teach them how to think.

So how do we go about training an engineer who thinks in these three dimensions? I would like to suggest a few steps:
Step 1: Integrate local knowledge
The first step is that teachers must be much more than just purveyors of contents. Today, the savvy student can source technical contents from a wide variety of sources just google it!

As I stated earlier, there seems to be a decoupling of the Nigerian students experiences from his/her engineering training. How can that be! It makes no sense to ignore the gifts, skills, talents, and knowledge that people have gathered over the course of their lives. To train a successful engineer, we must have a seamless integration between what they already experience and what they need to know! For example, while teaching gaming theory or probability, why not focus on the game of Ayo instead of baseball!

At Penn State, our University President, Eric Barron, uses an analogy that I would like to borrow here. You see, Penn State is a world-class research institution. We have some of the most renowned, world-class sought-after researchers in the entire world. Most of these researchers are happy to speak with students one-on-one, or provide them research opportunities. Nevertheless, many students who attend Penn State go through their entire academic career without taking advantage of all of the resources the university has to offer. They get up, they go to class, and then they return to their dorm room, do homework, pass exams and play video games or watch television.

To be continued.

• 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.