Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ant Hills: Materials Science and Engineering

While I was on sabbatical at the University of Ghana this year, I used to walk to and from work at the Faculty of Engineering Sciences (Torto Chemistry Building) on the Legon campus. One of the things that struck me was the several huge ant hills along the way. I realized that I had no idea how they were constructed. I started asking anyone I could find what they knew about the science and technology of ant hills.

At the same time, I was thinking about how to convey to my students some of the central concepts of materials science and engineering: processing/structure/properties/behavior. How do you teach the concept of microstructure in an environment without microscopes?

Eventually, I assigned my students a project.

They were to go out in teams of 2 into the field (dividing the campus into 4 quadrants, and sampling 2 ant hills from each quadrant, comparing and contrasting them). They were also to read four relevant articles I managed to locate: 1) J. Korb, “Experimental heating of Macrotermes bellicosus (Isoptera, Macrotermitinae) mounds: what role does microclimate play in influencing mound architecture?" Insectes sociaux, Vol. 45 (1998) pp. 335-342; 2) P. Jouquet, “The soil structural stability of termite nests: role of clays in Macrotermes bellicosus (Isoptera, Macrotermitinae) mound soils,” The European Journal of Soil Biology Vol. 40 (2004) pp. 23-29 (available online from Science Direct); 3) M. Luscher, “Air conditioned termite nests” The Scientific American, Vol. 205 (1961), pp. 138-145; and 4) P. R. Hesse, “A Chemical Physical Study of the Soils of Termite in East Africa,” The Journal of Ecology, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Jul., 1955), pp. 449-461, published by British Ecological Society.

The students had fun with this assignment. One of the lessons that profoundly affected some of them was recognizing that ants, without huge budgets, fancy equipment, or fanfare, are able to build such efficient and complex structures. It encouraged them to realize that, with creativity and hard work, it is possible to do something useful and long-lasting even if one has seemingly limited resources.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Advancing Science and Technology Education in Africa: The AUST Project

It is said that a few years ago when James Wolfesohn, former President of the World Bank, asked Nelson Mandela what he thought was the greatest need for development in Africa, Mandela unhesitatingly replied that it was human capacity in science and technology. Mandela’s statement inspired the World Bank to initiate the Nelson Mandela Institute/African Institute of Science and Technology project in 2004. The original vision was to create a world-class Pan-African research-oriented institution composed of higher education campuses and smaller affiliated centers of excellence throughout sub-Saharan Africa. This institution would be capable of training the next generation of African scientists and engineers and profoundly impacting the continent’s development.

This July marked the commencement of the first academic year at the first of the four proposed campuses: AUST Abuja. The next campus is likely to be in Arusha, Tanzania. 55 students were admitted into post-graduate courses at Abuja. Instructors include outstanding science and engineering professors from the African diaspora committed to helping the project succeed.

As a member of the African Scientific Committee (ASC) of the Nelson Mandela Institute, one of the things I find most exciting about this experiment is the fact that several of Africa’s best science and engineering students will be gathered in one place—I expect an explosion of creativity!

At the end of June, my wife, Dr. Fran Osseo-Asare, and I hosted a reception at the Legon Guest Centre restaurant for the Ghanaian AUST students. Eight of them were able to attend, along with several guests. Registrar A. T. Konu and Prof. Awotwi, Vice Dean of the School of Research and Graduate Studies, were present to provide words of encouragement and advice.

Below is a brief video featuring the students at the reception sharing their interests and hopes and aspirations.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Students Interview Materials Researchers at University of Ghana, Legon

2007-2008 has been a memorable year: a sabbatical leave from Penn State University enabled me to spend the academic year at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and the University of Ghana, Legon. At Legon I taught a course in the newly established Faculty of Engineering Sciences: MSEN 325--Materials and the Future. As part of that course, students identified faculty doing materials research, and armed with a simple digital camera, set out to interview 6 of them. The interviews are posted below:

Prof. Edmund Osae, Dept. of Physics

Dr. R. Kwadjo, Dept. of Physics

Prof. Adanu Dept. of Physics

Mr. Lucas Damoah, Materials Science & Engineering

Prof. D. K. Asiedu, Department of Geology

Dr. Elsie Effah Kaufmann, Dept. of Biomedical Engineering

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