Florida-based, Nigeria born Onyema Ajuogu, who is the President of Benignant STEM Innovation Foundation, is a trained aerospace engineer/pilot. Ajuogu has traversed many countries including Central America teaching young girls how to embrace science. As she launches the Nigerian version of STEM education, she speaks to journalists on her mission and why the Nigerian government should introduce STEM into schools’ curriculum. Uchechukwu Nnaike presents excerpts:

Who are you and who do you represent?
My name is OnyemaBenignaAjuogu, an aerospace engineer, a STEM advocate and I represent Benignant STEM Innovation (BSI)Foundation. I have been a champion for engaging young people in science and technology because I recognise that the future of a nation depends on the innovations and advances of today’s students. BSI’s educational programmes are a direct response to the reality that our future will be built on innovation and invention and creative problem solving.

How can you describe STEM education?
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. STEM is a unique approach of teaching and learning. But Benignant STEM Innovation Foundation is a non-profit innovative organisation that is committed to inspiring young women and providing educational opportunity. The focus is on developing countries and underserved group in developed nations. I believe that STEM is a tool that can help start development in developing countries.

What does your organisation do?
Benignant STEM Innovation Foundation is an innovative organisation dedicated to promoting increased participation in post-secondary education STEM fields by young people from developing countries around the world. One of our programmes is the “STEM workshop,” where we use tools such as rockets and aircraft kits to give young people hands-on activities to spark their interest in STEM education. The project classes can last from one week to six months depending on which tools are used for the workshop. Our rocket and aircraft kits are the “vehicles” we use to reinforce STEM concepts, as well as teach valuable life skills such as teamwork, leadership and innovative thinking.

Your organisation was one of the exhibitors at the USA Science and Engineering Festival. What was it about?
The USA Science and Engineering Festival is a collaboration of over 1,000 of the nation’s leading science and engineering organisations with an expected attendance of more than 350,000 participants from around the country. Because of United States priority in science, science fair is celebrated as they celebrate Hollywood. An opportunity that brings together teens, kids, and families together for a weekend filled with fun science activities that stimulate their interest in STEM and answer basic and high-level scientific questions. The different organisations
exhibiting at the festival explain scientific concepts through games, competitions and activities.
What did Benignant STEM Innovation do during the event?
BSI sees the festival as a perfect venue for spreading its message of inspiration, education, and opportunity through STEM education. We hosted STEM workshop, an activity that is designed to help participants learn and build model rocket. To excite the participants and encourage them to be interested in STEM programmes with the new hope of being engineers, scientists, among others.

Why do you think STEM is important?
Our organisation focuses on developing countries because that is where technical development needs to come in. STEM is not only a matter of social justice, but a matter of nations’ economic prosperity and wellbeing. If you look at history, every developed nation like United States has embraced STEM education that brought them to where they are today.

What are the key things leaders can do to encourage youths to study STEM-related fields?
Every school should have curriculum that includes STEM project. These days, it is not all about what you learn in the classroom, it is the experience you put into it. An experiment or hands-on activities that can expose them to basic STEM concepts would go a long way to get students interested in STEM fields and equip them with the 21st century skills for the real world. A hands-on activity that can spark their interest in STEM. And finally, a hope to use those skills acquired and incentives that comes with in form of pay cheque.

You know talented students are not entering these field because they have not been exposed to it much and lack of opportunities after graduation and role models are obstacles for these young students. They need to be shown what it is and the benefits they can get going into these STEM fields. The development of any nation is measured by the advancement in infrastructure, technology and the service sectors such as public transportation. With lack of STEM skilled workers in the country, it is impossible to bring about this development. The root cause of this problem lies in the education system and the system in which we retain skilled workers.

Why do you think government and corporate organisations should throw their weights behind the project?
The scale of the STEM crisis has grown far beyond the resources and capabilities of government and the schools boards alone. Much like climate change, STEM education now requires “all hands on deck,” with the corporate world driving much of the systemic change required. US corporations are now investing $350 billion annually in STEM education, more than 100X the scale of President Obama’s unprecedented $3 billion STEM initiative. Companies from all sectors have now made STEM education for 21st century jobs their number one corporate citizenship initiative. Many more companies invest deeply in STEM education as a means of innovating and surviving in the marketplace.

Benignant STEM Innovation Foundation is about to create awareness in Nigeria. What is all about?
BSI wants to create that awareness by hosting a one-day ‘Innovative Technological Development through STEM Awareness’ in Nigeria. The purpose for this event will be to increase the awareness about STEM and the need of adopting STEM projects and its inclusion in the Nigerian education system for the nation’s technological development. Our plan with this event is to highlight these facts, introduce Nigerian private sectors, civil society, youths and education leaders to BSI’s innovative STEM projects, and start expanding public-private partnerships to extend STEM education to all secondary school student in Nigeria; as well as opening a centre in Nigeria to house an aircraft building STEM workshop.

What is your advice to Nigeria about STEM?
STEM is the future. It is important because it pervades every aspect of what brings development for a nation. STEM professions build communities and transform nations. Science should been identified as a nation priority, but science teachers can’t do it all on their own. A lot of importance needs to be given to STEM education in this country. We need to provide the right kind of opportunities for students who wish to pursue their education in STEM, we need to show more faith and fully support intelligent students in the country. We need to inspire more young people to get into these advanced degree fields in STEM. While doing so, we also need to rethink the system in which we retain highly qualified STEM workers in the country. Many of the STEM skilled individuals leave Nigeria for better employment opportunities in developed countries such as the USA and UK, as a result what gets left behind is just public service, fashion and arts. We need to implement a strong system, which allows Nigeria to retain this highly qualified population. The overall goal must be to create a sustainable system/plan, which allows for an increase in the number of STEM workers in the country. Nigeria is ripped for actual development, which cannot happen outside or without STEM skills.

Why is the innovation important now?
During the time I was planning to come to USA for my studies, there was no university in Nigeria that offered aerospace engineering. Iam not sure if there is any school offering that course now. That shouldn’t be happening at this 21st century. In fact, Nigeria should have aircraft producing plant by now. The country is ripe for technological development. STEM skills have enabled the richest countries achieve sustained economic growth over the last two centuries. Their economic growth is powered fundamentally by their capacity to innovate. The competition among the developed countries is closely related to their relative capacities to innovate and to win new global markets for their technologically advanced products. We hope that whether attendees care about tackling climate change, finding a cure to cancer, using technology to help make people’s lives better, or getting a human to Mars, they realise that STEM is the answer.