• Ekanem Ibokessien

A Professor’s Passion for STEM

Professor Celestine Ntuen was disappointed to find the equivalent of an OND holder as Chief Engineering Supervisor for a major drainage work in Ibeno Beach, Akwa Ibom State. His inquiry revealed that the supervisor’s qualification for that job was being an American trained for two years in Civil Engineering Technology at a USA technical college. Could he have been that lucky if he were a Nigerian and holder of a polytechnic ordinary diploma? The professor said he was ashamed of his country at that moment because undiscerning reliance on foreign hands does not happen in advanced countries that believe in developing their intellectual capital. The scenario rekindled his passion for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education.

Ntuen is Vice Chancellor of Ritman University in Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom State and Fellow of USA Institute of Industrial Engineers. He believes in STEM as bedrock for development, and an adaptive education that meets technological and economic needs of the nation. At every opportunity, he harps on an urgent need to re-engineer Nigeria’s educational system and organize it for productivity with STEM as indispensable ingredient. He frowns at a situation in which Science books written many years ago are still being used as school texts, while lecturers would rather force students to buy photocopied pages of expired books than break grounds with researches of their own. The scholar advocates that curricula, pedagogy methods and texts should change periodically to suit changes in our social and economic environment: this he calls Adaptive Education.

Ntuen who is also a Visiting Professional Fellow and Research Scholar of the Nigerian Defence Academy was Guest Lecturer at the University of Uyo where he gave a treatise on Public Policy for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM): Alleviating Consumerism through Practical Innovation. His paper, delivered at the Professor Akpan Hogan Ekpo Centre for Public Policy, UNIUYO, offered panacea to Nigeria’s Science and Tech-related difficulties.

The scholar, who received a USA Vice President’s research citation award for developing a software to improve military training and simulation, noted that STEM as an approach and way of thinking is used to motivate creativity and innovation in people who partake in related education and learning activities. He spoke also of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) which emphasizes a holistic education predicated on human endeavours as lens to understand the world. With STEAM, the Applied and Natural Sciences collaborate with disciplines in the Arts to bring human understanding of information ecology (culture, history, politics, etc) and aesthetics of the entire ecosystem.

The STEM acronym was introduced in 2001 by Judith Ramaley, a scientific administrator at USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF). Since 2001, STEM has been the focus of US education reform and backdrop of Science and Technology policies. STEM disciplines include Aerospace Engineering, Astronomy, Biochemistry, Biology, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Civil Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Physics, Social Science, Statistics and so on. The United Nations Science Advisory Board calls on scientists and policy-makers to promote a set of principles that underpin the crucial role of science for sustainable development.

As early as 24 May 1963, President Kwame Nkrumah – during his first speech at the founding of OAU – articulated a bold vision for Africa with STEM in mind: “It is within the possibility of Science and Technology to make even the Sahara bloom into a vast field with verdant vegetation for agricultural and industrial developments”. The AU agenda 2063 plan contains policies that are underpinned by Science, Technology and Innovation (ST&I) as multi-function tools and enablers for achieving continental development goals. The existing government policy of admitting students into tertiary institutions stipulate 60:40 ratio of Sciences to Arts.

Prof Ntuen views STEM education as the bedrock for sustainable development. Quoting the Minister for Science and Technology, he says that in the Global Competitiveness Report for 2015/2016, Nigeria ranked 106 out of 140 countries on Technological Readiness and 117 out of 140 countries on Innovation. He laments that Nigeria has a labour force without a rich supply of STEM-skilled individuals and that though Nigerians are quick to join the bandwagon of using buzzwords such as “Sustainability”, “Innovation”, and “Transformation Economy”, they fail to provide the resources for manpower development.

The Nigerian ST&I policy vision statement under NV 20:2020 states that “by 2020, Nigeria shall achieve a large, strong , diversified, sustainable and competitive economy that effectively harnesses the talents and energies of its people and responsibly exploits its natural endowments to guarantee a high standard of living and quality life for its citizens”. But Ntuen notes that the six objectives present in the NV 20:2020 make no mention of STEM education. He avers that Nigeria’s policies on Science and Technology (S&T) have suffered from discontinuities due to leadership changes; incoherencies and human resource deficiencies in the industrial sectors. Another problem is external influence due to economic support systems from funding agencies such as World Bank, UN and foreign investors. He also underscores the lack of foresight to plan along the innovation and economy-enabling STEM education disciplines.

His general overview of our situation is that Nigerian national policies towards STEM and innovation is very progressive, but there are some areas of concern such as lack of qualified teachers and shortfall in number of qualified Math and Science teachers from primary to secondary schools. Moreover, lack of modern laboratories to encourage competitive STEM education; lack of motivation at the nursery/primary stages to cultivate interests in STEM education; and failure of government to actively involve industries as stakeholders in formulating STEM education policies create a lag. Quoting World Economic Forum (2016), the don informs us that China, India and USA lead among countries with the highest number of STEM graduates and that is why these countries are dominant in the S&T markets in terms of product annual exports. Having studied the ST&I situation in developed countries, Prof Ntuen arrived at ways out of the woods.

Just as UNESCO and WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) are consistently asking nations to invest at least 3% of their GDP on S&T education as well as Research and Development (R&D), fast-tracking development would require closing the ST&I investment gaps. While a targeted 1% of GDP for R&D is perceived as high by many governments, countries with strong and effective ST&I systems invest up to 3.5% of their GDP in R&D, according to 2017 Global Competitiveness Index Report. Ntuen says policy statements should be designed to correct shortfalls in preparation of students from primary to SS3 through good learning infrastructure; good teacher preparations; advising and counseling; plus practical orientation in studies. Also, industries should be involved in setting our STEM education agendas based on national and industry needs.

With his knowledge that Nigerians in Diaspora are making significant S&T contributions to USA, Canada and EU member countries, Ntuen says we can curb brain drain through enhancing innovative capacity and creating synergy between industry and academia for knowledge and technology flows from the science base into industry. The purpose of such collaboration is to enhance opportunities for commercialization of research products. He offers that for all government-funded S&T research, it should be required that at least three of the key players collaborate. The key players are academia, industry, and government R&D institutions. Every proposed project should explain roles of the industries in facilitating the commercialization process. Where practicable, funded projects should be allowed to collaborate with one or more international agencies as this will facilitate technology transfer.

On the Intellectual Capital and Capacity (ICC) Development side, public policies must be developed to enhance development of our local contents. The scholarship schemes for on- and off-shore are laudable. Barring the government employees’ tendency to misuse appropriated funds assigned for training Nigerian manpower, a successful ICC development will help to build up indigenous capacity to innovate. Furthermore, value-added strategies are needed to preserve continuity and sustenance of policies, including a constitutional mandate forbidding chief executives of the nation and states to arbitrarily cancel and or abandon viable projects started by their predecessors without good cause or for partisan reasons.

He advocates a re-engineering of the STEM curriculum as in innovation lead places like USA and European Union Countries, by teaching STEM from nursery schools. Ntuen discloses that Apple Computers has a hands-on demonstration practice called Discovery for nursery to kindergarten children and provides learning tools on iPads. Apple also funds Discovery projects at many schools. The pedagogy exposes children to natural sciences using intuitive visual and sound interfaces. In addition, Nigeria should develop STEM proficiency and Science discovery programmes for all students early in their lives. The curricula structure of STEM and the supporting resources should be re-engineered to cope with the modern scientific and technological discoveries.

This could be done by developing policies and monitoring outcomes that improve proficiency of students in STEM. Such curricula should emphasize understanding STEM facts, principles and techniques as seen and practiced in everyday endeavours. Curriculum planners should also develop policies on standard STEM literacy for citizens through the early Discovery programmes. Minimum standards should include: using critical thinking to recognize problems and utilizing Math, Science, Technology, and Engineering concepts to evaluate problems as well as product designs. Also, making policies that stipulate class size and staffing ratios with methods for accountability in teaching and learning is essential.

United Nations policies on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) suggest a minimum of 2.5% GNP investment in STEM fields. Increasing funding in STEM Education through constitutional allocation will ensure support towards STEM and innovation competitiveness. There should be a policy mandating TETFUND to allocate 30% of its budget to STEM education, infrastructure and R&D programmes. Other supports can come in many forms, such as funding for STEM initiatives at tertiary institutions, secondary and elementary schools. Even the seemingly intractable insecurity problem of our nation can be combated using products of STEM education, plus R&D. Thus, like USA, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and other innovative countries, Nigeria must also produce a STEM-educated workforce with bias for national security. Today’s for¬eign intelligence efforts increasingly rely on cyber tools to collect sensitive information of other countries on technology and eco¬nomics. Governments should consider establishing regular dialogue and coordination between Nigerian scientists and policymakers in the defence and national security agencies. The National Assembly should recognize cognate S&T experience for appointments into defence and security committees. S&T expertise is badly needed on these issues as most lawmakers do not have a technical background and most of them are nearly scientifically illiterate, the professor says. Policies are needed from both Executive and Legislative branches of government to mandate national defence agencies to allocate portions of their annual budget to collaboration with industries and academia for R&D related to defense objectives. Practical innovation and attendant commercialization contributes to national economy by way of value-added outputs such as in production of goods and services, employment, and other auxiliary services for quality of life enhancement. Commercialization is about translating ideas, concepts, and mind experiments into artifacts designed to support human existence. Applied research is a systematic study to recognize means by which specific needs may be accomplished. This includes all efforts that have moved into the development and integration of hardware and software for field demonstration and tests. Development is a systematic application of knowledge toward the production of useful materials, devices, and systems or methods, including design, development, and improvement of prototypes and new processes to specific requirements. All these need to guide policy decisions. Policies should be made on commercialization and translational research with regard to modalities on filing for intellectual property (IP), patents, and sale of patent rights to commercial ventures; inclusion of commercialization opportunities as requirement for research grant applications to government agencies, including TETFUND; and a national policy empowering states of the federation to build turnkey beta testing facilities for knowledge transfer and commercialization requirements. The scholar believes it is time to go beyond rhetoric to action on STEM education for human and national development.

Edidiong Esara 26/07/18

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