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‘Environment not friendly for engineers to hone their skills’

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MRS. FUNMILOLA OJELADE is the president, Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria (APWEN). She spoke to VICTOR GBONEGUN on steps being taken to eliminate gender gap in engineeering and how to produce better graduates in the profession.

As the president of the Association of professional women Engineers (APWEN), would you say women are well represented in engineering practice? What must be done to eliminate the huge gender gap in the profession?
Women are not well represented in engineering practice and this is a reflection of the percentage of women when compared to men, who seek admission to study engineering. So, to eliminate the gender gap, we need first to increase tremendously the percentage of girls opting for engineering as a career. We can do this by taking some steps. First, from a very early age, girls need to know that engineering is a career for them too. The low number of girls opting to study engineering can partly be traced to societal stereotyping of the woman as a homemaker. Secondly, as the girls grow, we need to get them interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects because that is what they need to study engineering. Finally, when they eventually study engineering, we need to find a way of retaining them in the profession through gainful employment in the engineering field.

In all these levels, APWEN is contributing its quota. We have educational service programmes targeted at the different developmental levels of the girl-child: primary, secondary, and tertiary. We also have mentoring programmes for young female engineers and workshops and seminars for mature female engineers. Our programmes are aimed at increasing the number of practicing female engineers, in other words narrowing the huge gender gap.

There seems to be lack of engineering innovations in Nigeria, what roles do engineers play to reverse the trend and move Nigeria to the path of growth and infrastructural development?
Have you heard of necessity being the mother of invention? Engineering innovation, or innovation of any kind is a product of necessity. In the heat of the present COVID-19 pandemic, I saw on social media, two engineering students who invented a device that could reduce the spread of the virus. Essentially, the device prevents you from touching your face by sounding an alarm once your hand moves toward your face. The device also dispenses sanitizer onto your palms periodically so that your hands can remain germ free; protect you from involuntarily infecting yourself and others. In addition, the device monitors your body temperature so you can be aware if it rises above normal and you can take necessary actions immediately.

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Commercialising their invention would be the challenge they may now need to face. And a lot of young chaps are coming up with many innovative products like that. But the environment is not friendly enough to help them hone their innovative skills. Who would agree to purchase and use their device in its imperfect form; just as a test? In other words, who would volunteer to fund the research and development needed to bring this innovation to the market? I believe we sometimes need to be driven to a point where there are no alternatives, then we will make the best of what we have – we will become innovative.

For example, the APWEN e-learning platform I spoke about earlier, that is an innovation borne out of necessity. You would want to say e-learning is not new, why then would I call that an innovation? It’s because in the past, we would have carried out these trainings in real locations with people attending physically. We would spend money on venues, workshop materials, feeding of participants, and sometimes, honorarium for the speakers. With all of that stress, we would not achieve the impact that we’re presently achieving with the e-learning platform with participants from all over Nigeria and abroad. We would not have passionate Nigerian engineers and entrepreneurs coming to impact us with the knowledge they have gained practicing for decades in the most developed countries around the world.

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Yet another way we are reversing the trend of the dearth of engineering innovations in Nigeria is by engaging the youths. To engender engineering innovation, APWEN introduced the “Invent It Innovate Challenge” in 2019 for engineering undergraduates. It is a competition that requires the students to come up with innovative solutions to societal problems. Last year, the theme was Solid Waste for Social Good and students came up with inventions like producing fuel out of plastic waste. To incentivize them to come up with these innovations, we attached a prize money to the winning idea (N250,000) and funding to develop the idea (N3,000,000). Again, the issue of funding the R&D is going to stop these innovative ideas. You can sense that already by the prize money attached to these innovations: $625 for the winning idea and $7,500 to develop the idea.

To put this in perspective, Big Brother Africa will “reward” these youths $75,000 to stay unproductively in a house for just one month. That’s 10 times of the reward we’re offering to task their brain for several months, even years, to develop the idea. But that is all we can afford at the moment. We received promises of additional funding from motivated organizations when we presented the innovations to the public this past January. Not a single one of those promises has been made good as at today. But we have gone ahead to promptly honor our promise totaling N500, 000 ($1,250) to the top three winners. However, we still need to source the N3, 000, 000 we promised to provide for developing the idea. And we’re going to provide that money; we always keep our word.

What other plans does your administration have to positively impact the engineering profession?
We are primarily concerned with women engineers, helping them to excel by encouraging them to be the best they can be. The diversity, which the inclusion of our gender means to the male-dominated engineering profession is a positive impact to the engineering profession. What that means is that we need to be allowed a more level playing ground. Towards this, we’re presently advocating for a bill to increase the percentage of women representation in boards of Ministries Departments and Agencies (MDAs) to 40 per cent. And if the MDA is engineering-related, let there be a female engineer in the board. At the moment we have less than 15 per cent women representation in any Board in Nigeria.

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Another positive impact we’re bringing to the engineering profession in Nigeria and which affects everyone, and not just women engineers alone, is the adoption of online education. The lockdown imposed by the federal government to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled us to birth the APWEN’s e-learning platform, which has been well accepted by engineers and non-engineers alike because of the quality of learning they receive for free. We plan to develop this initiative into a MOOC (Massive online open courses) in the near future and introduce courses that can be used, not only by professionals and entrepreneurs as the case presently is, but by students at all levels too.

One quick win we’ve got from the e-learning platform is access to the knowledge base of engineers and entrepreneurs in diaspora. These are people passionate about Nigeria and strongly desire to use the experience they have gathered in developed countries to impact our engineering profession and improve our country. Having experienced the two worlds, they can proffer solutions adapted to the Nigerian environment. Our e-learning platform is helping them to actualize this dream and helping us to gain the inspiration we need to develop the ideas that will improve our country through the engineering profession.

The Federal Government sometimes last year signed an Executive order called, ‘Order 5’ which centred on promotion of local content in science, engineering and technology. What has been the impact so far on engineering profession and what grey areas do you needs adjustments?
EO5 or Executive Order No. 5 is one of the most visible indications of government’s true intentions as far as promoting the “made-in-Nigeria” brand ever put forward. Unfortunately, as with many government initiatives, regardless of how good intentioned they are, the impact always takes a while before it becomes evident. On our part, APWEN and the larger body, the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE), will intensify efforts towards assisting with the implementation of this order through our members, as no other profession benefits more from it than the engineers. EO5 is very clear on what President Muhammadu Buhari wants to achieve. Its impact is slow, but we have the vehicle for prompting its implementation, if we apply ourselves.

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There are worries as to the competency of engineering graduates produced from the nation’s ivory towers. Industry experts have lamented that they are not well equipped enough. What are the critical challenges and would you call for curriculum review?
I do not know if the curriculum is the problem because the basic concepts of engineering haven’t changed. Applying the engineering concepts to solve problems is what needs to be improved upon. The education needs to involve more of current trends in the industry. When a concept is taught, examples of industry application of the concepts should also be provided. What trending technology uses this concept? This means that the lecturer needs to be abreast with trends in the industry. Equipping of engineering laboratories, industry focused research; these are all issues that affect the competency of graduates from our tertiary institutions. If we can provide solution to these issues, we would produce competent graduates

The statistics for out of school children is huge in Nigeria. What are your plans to assist this group especially in making sure that more of them pursue a career in engineering, science and technology?
APWEN has a programme for primary school girls called “Invent It, Build It.” It is a competition that helps us select girls with engineering aptitude and provides them with scholarships from primary to university to study engineering. That would mean that they cannot enjoy the scholarship at university level if they do not study engineering. This programme has helped to keep many girls in school; we have organized it in the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria in the past two years. We will continue with the programme and make as much impact as we can

What is your advice for young people who intend to venture into engineering?
Engineering is a noble profession and engineers are problem solvers. Keep your mind open and be observant about how you can improve upon any system, or method, or invention. Solve problems, in short.

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In this article:
APWENFunmilola Ojelade
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