Building a Technology Base for Youths

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STEM4Africa, an international non-profit organisation, recently kicked off a campaign aimed at reviving and building the capacity among youths in the area of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as part of its plans to make Nigeria a strong technology hub on the continent, writes Ugo Aliogo

“I look forward to developing robotic systems as solution to unique challenges being faced in Nigeria in areas such as agriculture, medicine, rehabilitation and others. I am a firm believer that the problem being faced by a nation can only be solved effectively by citizens of that nation as only they can fully experience in the unique challenges around. I do wish I had been introduced to robotics much earlier (like in secondary school) and so I am determined to help students in this category to have those things I wish I had.”

These words were that of Ishola Isaac, an Electrical Engineer and emerging Robotics expert. Isaac has defied the odds to carve out a niche for himself in the area of robotics. Leveraging on the Massive Open Online Course, he has learnt the basics of robotics systems since courses are not being offered on this subject in Nigerian universities. He has since been part of a number of robot projects. These include a locally fabricated Humanoid (looks and walks like humans) robot; Autonomous rover (vehicle that drives itself using camera as input and artificial intelligence); Robotic Arm used in an automated remote laboratory for a civil engineering experiment.

Today, he conducts robotics training (Lego Mind storm) for secondary school students teaching them how to build and programme robots, while preparing them to compete in the World Robotics Olympiad. Many like Isaac abound in Nigeria with the ingenuity to change the face of science and technology in the country, but often times they don’t have the platform to leverage on and showcase their skills.

Statistics revealed that while Africa makes up 12 per cent of the world’s population, its research and development capacity is untapped. Companies in Africa are struggling to find skilled employees with STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) knowledge. The skills shortage in Africa, particularly in STEM fields, keeps growing and has not been addressed.

As part of efforts to bridge this technological deficit, an international non-profit organisation known as STEM4Africa, recently organised a free one day Lego Robotics challenge in Lagos, with three schools (Hallmark School, Little Saints Montessori School and Grange School) 36 students, and 12 teams in attendance.

At the event, the pupils were introduced to engineering problems, establish lines of inquiry and consider possible solutions. They were also taught how to build programmes and modify a Lego robotic model to solve problems. The training was further stretched to teaching the pupils how to create a poster in order to teach others about what they have learned, while assisting them understand the importance of collaboration towards a project goal.

To set the stage for the discourse with the pupils was the President of STEM4Africa, Kingsley Ufere, a light skinned man full of life and vigour. He had a demeanour which portrayed the spirit of sacrifice and love. When he spoke to the pupils, he sounded passionate and unwavering. The import of his motivational talk was to urge the pupils to develop a mindset which could help them transform the country using STEM.

Ufere was sad that despite the number of graduates, the country lacks the hands-on solution of providing answers to real-life scientific and technology-based problems. He is however optimistic that there is hope for the country especially with the commitment of STEM4Africa’s to breach this gap by targeting youths and empowering them with the necessary tools that reinvigorates their interest, and expansive thinking, which allows them to be good with hands-on practical solutions.

The STEM4Africa programme which is the inaugural edition, serves as the pilot phase for the STEM robotics challenge. The strategy is hinged on engaging people actively in robotics challenges in Nigeria and other countries in Africa in the next five years.

“We will kick off in Kenya next year and Uganda. Our strategy is to ensure that we keep this learning sustainable by deploying the STEM innovation laboratory. The laboratory will be furnished with the necessary infrastructure and also a developed e-learning curriculum which we are working with the U.S. presently. The e-curriculum will help to provide consistent learning across the different programmes in the different countries we will be operating in. Through those innovation laboratories we will have the ability to develop real time collaborations with the students,” he said.

He explained that there will be a fully networked laboratory with a 75-screen television, this he noted would promote networking with other students working on robotics in other schools at different countries at the same time, adding that towards the end of the programme, they will establish a mentorship programme, which would involve youths in higher institutions, and secondary schools. “The ultimate goal is to create the necessary pipeline, which will raise kids from primary, secondary and tertiary with the required skills sets.”

Ufere added: “The biggest challenge that we have is feasibility, so even if we are involved in this activity here in Hallmark School, the task is how to expand and extend our reach to ensure that everyone can see the programme. This ensures that we have the right funding base, and the right strategy around feasibility.

“Part of our plans is that with the STEM innovation, we are working to partner with some companies in order to help fund and deploy these innovations. If a company is funding a particular innovation laboratory, the laboratory will be named after the company. We don’t want to have ourselves tied to it, but the company will help drive feasibility. We believe that once we have been able to provide feasibility to the work we are doing, it will drive the interest for others companies to be involved.

“We don’t just need involvement from only funding perspective only. We need smart Nigerians. One of the challenges is that because it doesn’t seem attractive to maintain their intellectual capacity in Nigeria, there is the movement of brain drain from the country. These individuals travel to America, Europe and forget their homelands.

“Through these innovations, we are hoping to connect with the folks that have left, those about leaving and those that are ready to be inspired. As part of our project for next year, we are being selective with the schools because we are aware that logistics and planning will be the challenge, if we have not selected. Once we have been able to collect feedbacks from this activity, we will set a number of criteria, such as getting public schools involved. These criteria will guide our selection process.

“We will be providing scholarship to some of these kids that cannot afford the programme. We also want to ensure that we have public and private schools included which will make it all inclusive because we think that it is not a good strategy to focus on one demographic. We think being inclusive and integrating public schools and private schools will be a good way of achieving our objective focused on contributing our quota to development of the country through STEM.

“By next year, we will make application open to schools. We want to consider six schools, three in Lagos and three in the East. We are also considering Rivers State or Imo State, but that depends on logistics challenges. We will establish criteria for selecting the schools and use independent bodies in the selection process to determine which schools will go through. Recently, we got information that we are now a 501C3 organisation in the United States which means that the U.S. recognises us as a non-profit organisation.

“This is huge for us because we can receive funding support from the United Nations (UN), from the World Health Organisations (WHO), United Nation Children Education Fund (UNICEF) and other international bodies. They only provide support to 501C3 approved bodies. From international standpoint, we have already started working on proposals, and engaging the institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, we are negotiating a contract with them currently. In Nigeria, we are trying to work with some corporate bodies to provide the common shared value from their company and with us.”

In his remark, the Vice President of STEM4Africa, Michael Omiyale, said there was need for government involvement, stating that organisations such as theirs should be given the needed support as no organisation can survive without support, “there should support in the areas of publicity and financial involvement.”

He added that in most developed countries with strong technology base, government plays an important role in strengthening the technology base, while calling on government to include applicable practicals in the school curriculum.