Monday, June 8, 2015

A Tribute to Excellence: Virginia Ciminelli

It was a pleasure in October 2014 to attend the induction of Brazilian Prof. Virginia Ciminelli into the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE). She was recognized for her "contributions in environmental hydrometallurgy, and for leadership in national and international technical collaboration."

I was reminded of a conversation I had with her in 2011 when we were working together and I was spending time in the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), Belo Horizonte. My wife videotaped parts of that casual exchange, which covered topics ranging from international collaboration and exchanges to career paths and cultural and gender issues in academia, and research leadership.

Prof. Ciminelli and family at induction brunch

I am currently back in Brazil once again on a sabbatical leave at UFMG, and decided that the interview was worth posting.

Part I (8:08)


Part 2 (10:18)


Part 3 (6:39)

Part 4 (7:27) 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Those who don't know where the rain began to beat them . . .

My 1965 year group at Achimota Secondary School was probably the first to be assigned Chinua Achebe's 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart as one of the books for the O Level English Literature course. 

On Thursday March 21, 2013 this Nigerian writer who has been called the "founding father of African literature in English" died at age 82. Achebe's works, taken as a whole, focus on the pathologies of Africa. He was a very wise man.

It has been well over 50 years since the publication of Things Fall Apart.  These days, when I arrive in Abuja international airport on my way to teach at the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja (AUST), the car that takes me through downtown to the campus travels on a new freeway being constructed by a German company. The future campus of AUST will be designed by an Italian architectural firm. Just this week, there was an official ceremony where the Chinese Ambassador to Ghana handed over the keys to the new headquarters of Ghana's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, designed and constructed by Chinese companies.

You wonder, why after 5 decades of independence, have so many African countries not yet found ways to seriously involve their own scientists and engineers in infrastructural development?

This question reminds me of one of Achebe's proverbs in Things Fall Apart: "Those who do not know where the rain began to beat them cannot say where they dried their bodies."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

MOOCs--New Opportunity for Science and Engineering Education in Africa?

Cormier's video What is a MOOC?:
Everyone seems to be talking about MOOCs (pronounced like the sound a cow makes, but ending in "ks," mooks) these days. In the past year the explosion of "MOOCs" (Massive Open Online Courses) promises to profoundly change accessibility to higher education, particularly in science and engineering. Today's blog gives a general overview of this exciting development. The link referenced under the picture goes to a brief YouTube video by Cormier that explains in simple terms how a MOOC works. My next post will  explore some implications of this new model of teaching and learning for African science and technology education.

Background and Timeline

In 2001, in a pioneering move, MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), announced its intention to place all of its courses online (MIT OpenCourseWare) and make them available free of charge to everyone. Within 6 years MIT had completed the publication of virtually the entire curriculum, more than 1,800 courses from some 33 disciplines.

In Fall, 2011, Stanford University experimented with an online course-hosting program that attracted hundreds of thousands of students, allowing them to take courses free of charge. 

In April 2012, the New York Times  reported that 2 computer science professors (Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller) from Stanford University had collected $16 million in venture capital and formed partnerships with four leading universities (Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and the University of Michigan). This venture was called Coursera. In the video referenced below, co-founder Andrew Ng explains how he views the MOOCs as social entrepreneurship and repeatedly explains to a confused Fox newsman why he believes it is important to serve the neediest people--while someone in San Francisco may easily be able to pay $5 (the cost of a latte) for an online course, a poor young person in Kenya may find that same $5 unthinkable.

At the same time another MOOC company, Udacity, grew out of a free online computer class in artificial intelligence offered at Stanford in 2011 by Sebastian Thrun, a Google Fellow and research professor at Stanford. Thrun, along with David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky were cofounders.
In early May 2012, MIT and Harvard University announced they, too, were teaming up to provide  MOOCs, and formed edX. Each partner initially invested $30 million in the venture.  MIT's Provost Rafael Reif insisted that they were designed " 'not to make money' but to improve learning for both the universities and the public at large."  By July 2012, U.C. Berkeley had become a partner with edX. 

By August 2012 Coursera had attracted a million students from 196 countries [the top users were from the US (38%), Brazil (6%), India (5%), and China (4%).]

By September 2012, Coursera had added an additional 17 universities. Coursera now has over 60 university partners and 2.8 million students. In late February 2013 Pennsylvania State University (where I work) announced it was contributing 5 courses.

The original idea behind the MOOCs was that in general  students would receive certificates of completion, but not be given university credit. However, that may change in the future as the value of completing MOOC courses evolves.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

More on the Inauguration in Arusha

As promised in my previous posting, I have now uploaded several video clips from the  November, 2012 inauguration of the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (NM AIST)  in Arusha, Tanzania. These clips are also available on the AqueouSolutions You Tube site.
More photos are available on flickr

In the first, the President of Tanzania unveils the busts of presidents Mandela and Nyerere.

The second presents excerpts of the speeches by Dr. Leautier and President Kikwete. It was inspiring to learn why Arusha was selected as the site for the Eastern Africa AIST.


The third gives you a taste of some of the lively music and dancing:

Sunday, February 3, 2013

NM AIST - Arusha: Kuna Mengi ya Chumba Chini

On November 1, 2012, I had the distinct pleasure of being a part of the inaugural activities of The Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha, Tanzania, presenting one of  three inaugural public lectures. The first was given by Professor Mramba Nyindo, a specialist in parasitology, entymology, and immunology, and author of 2 books (Animal Diseases due to Protozoa and Rickettsia and Life in Science, From Village to PhD and Back). Prof. Nyindo, a delightful senior academic, spoke on "Trends in Science Education: The role of the Teacher and Student." I spoke on "Plenty of Room at the Bottom: Science, Technology, and Innovation in African Development"  [Kuna Mengi ya Chumba Chini: Sayansi, Teknolojia Na Ubunifu Katika Afrika]. My title was a reference to Richard Feynman's famous 1959 lecture "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom. An Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics."   Prof. Wole Soboyejo, President of The African University of Science and Technology in Abuja (AUST-Abuja, Nigeria), spoke on challenges and opportunities for science and technology research in Africa.

There were numerous memorable moments at the event: 
  • The opportunity to savor the beauty of the surroundings and new buildings 
  • The unveiling of busts of Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere with stirring words of wisdom on the plaques below them: "Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that a child of a farm worker can become the president of a great nation." (Nelson Mandela) and  ". . . intellectuals have a special contribution to make to the development of our nation, and to Africa. And I am asking that their knowledge and the greater understanding that they should possess, should be used for the benefit of the society of which we are all members." (Julius Nyerere)

  • The vibrant music and dancing and celebratory feeling among all who attended to see this dream becoming real 
  • Listening to the heart-felt words of the President of Tanzania (Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete), the Vice President (Dr. Mohamed Gharib Bilal), the Vice Chancellor of AIST-Arusha
    (Prof. Burton L.M Mwamila)
    [see picture top right], and Dr. Frannie Leautier, Executive Secretary of the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) [see picture below]

In the future I plan to share some video clips I took during the celebration, as well as more observations from the inauguration, but will close today by including the university's current vision of its departments, as shown in the diagram below. While this diagram will likely evolve as the institute grows, I was greatly encouraged and intrigued to note that each of the five clusters surrounding the center circle includes both science and engineering. If this was a deliberate intent to incorporate both science and engineering into each cluster (in contrast to traditional models where each is treated as a separate entity) NM-AIST may well be setting up a model that can lead the way for others.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Education is War: Emmanuel Vodah--In Memoriam

Education is a war against ignorance. Quality science education is not cheap. If we are serious about science education, we should declare war on ignorance and provide the necessary resources to fight it” -- Marian Ewurama Addy

Intellectually, I have always accepted Marian Addy’s words. However, I never considered that, as in a conventional war, there will be physical casualties. AUST student Emmanuel Vodah (first on left) met an untimely death on Wednesday, March 11, 2012, in a motorbike-car collision. Our first fatality, at first glance it seems random.

However, at the time of his death, Emmanuel was earnestly waging the war against ignorance. Committed to being in this place at this time to do his part, he was nonetheless a casualty of a world in which a life can be snuffed out instantly due to unsafe roads and vehicles, a world in which those who have much are protected and those who have less are vulnerable.

I have often lamented the overcrowded conditions on the roads surrounding AUST-Abuja, in Nigeria’s capital city, and on several occasions have been in a vehicle that has been forced to the side of the road to make way for a motorcade escorting influential officials. Vodah envisioned a better and more just world, one that science, technology, engineering and creativity could help fashion.

His tragic death reminds us that if science and technology and education are to prevail over ignorance, they must be rooted in our world realities and aim at helping to restructure our priorities and institutions. Let us honor Emmanuel Vodah’s memory by recommitting and rededicating ourselves to the ideals for which he gave his life—to creating a safer, better world for everyone.

In closing, let me remark that, as a teacher, you tend to assume that you will depart this earth before your students. It's heartbreaking when they leave before you do. We shall always remember Emmanuel’s infectious optimism and confidence in AUST’s vision. Our deepest condolences to his family.

There is a hymn that captures the hope that Emmanuel lived and died by:

"In the bulb there is a flower;
in the seed, an apple tree;
in cocoons, a hidden promise:
Butterflies will soon be free!

There's a song in ev'ry silence,
seeking word and melody.
There's a dawn in ev'ry darkness,
bringing hope to you and me.

In our end is our beginning;
in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing;
in our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,

unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see."

Rest in peace, dear son of AUST.

Monday, August 8, 2011

If you educate a girl, Part IX

When on sabbatical leave at the University of Ghana in 2008 I heard people say that the University of Cape Coast (UCC) had some of the best university science programs in Ghana. I was concerned, therefore, when I realized that among the Ghanaian students admitted to the African University of Science and Technology (AUST-Abuja), in 2008 and 2009, there were no UCC students.

In March 2010, o
n my way to a meeting at AUST, I decided to stop in Ghana and visit UCC. After contacting the Dean of Physical Sciences via e-mail, he kindly extended an invitation to me. I met with fifteen or so teaching assistants with first degrees in physics and chemistry, and shared with them the AUST vision, but never heard back from any of them. It was therefore a pleasant surprise when in the following July, three students (two females and a male) came up to me in AUST-Abuja, smiling, and introduced themselves as among the students who met with me at UCC.

In December 2011 these three UCC students will graduate with MSc degrees—two of them in Theoretical Physics and another in Materials Science and Engineering. Congratulations to them!

Continuing with my series on the education of females, I asked if the two women, Janet Sackey and Ivy Asuo, would be willing to share a bit about their experiences and what motivated them to pursue careers in science and technology:

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