Friday, April 3, 2009

African proverbs--teaching and learning materials science and engineering

In September 2008 I posted a blog about my experiment using African proverbs to teach students materials science and engineering at the University of Ghana, and in December 2008 I followed that up with a blog sharing similar experiences while teaching at AUST in Abuja, Nigeria. It was a wonderful surprise to learn that the students I taught at AUST in November 2008 are still reflecting on the assignment I gave them.

Here is a recent contribution shared by Clement Domefafa Atiso:

The following two proverbs are from the Volta Region of Ghana (in West Africa) and are shown in Ewe, followed by their literal English translation and an attempt to relate them to the science of materials.

“Heti be mekaye o, gake ne na ne dzo de dzi la, aba gbo wa koe ayie”
Straw says that he does not care, but if he finds himself in trouble, he goes to mat for help.

Relevance to materials science and engineering: A mat is a carpet-like material obtained by weaving straws together. When spread on the floor it is used for sleeping or sitting. It is also used outside for activities requiring people to sit on the ground. To understand how materials function we must first know how they behave at their microscopic level. For instance, the human body is made of several organs but the basic building blocks are cells. An accurate and down-to-core understanding of how cells function and interact with each other will help to predict an organ’s behavior at the macroscopic level. In other words, macroscopic properties are often the manifestation of microscopic properties, thus both are inseparable. So is straw to mat, since mat is stronger, but it is made of many straws woven together.

“Nuyi atso vo na etsoa la, le ye to fe adome."
“What will circumcise the horse is found within itself" (or, The horse has within itself what it needs to become a circumsized animal).

Relevance to materials science and engineering: this proverb basically means that solutions to problems are frequently found within the problems themselves. A typical example is found in fracture mechanics. Fracture mechanics is a branch of materials science and engineering involving the study of how materials break. If we have a thorough idea about how materials fracture, we can design them to minimize their failure rates. Airplanes were formerly designed with rectangular windows, but right angles in shapes constitute high areas of stress concentration which easily initiate cracks leading to fractures. That is why planes' windows are now designed as ovals: rounded corners have less stress on them than square ones. Most materials science and engineering problems have their solutions embedded in themselves. Materials scientists and engineers need only to learn how to uncover and utilize them.

Thanks to Mr. Atiso (Fafa) for keeping this conversation going. Does anyone else have anything to add?

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