Africa: The case for engineering curriculum transformation

Sub-Saharan Africa is currently experiencing one of the most rapid economic growth in the world. However, unlike economic growth elsewhere,  this economic growth is not matched by a corresponding reduction in poverty (Filler 2014). Youth unemployment, and underemployment, remains high, and in a region where the youth constitute over 50% of the population, this is being viewed by policy planners as a ticking time-bomb. The main reason for this is that economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is primarily driven by minerals and commodities, both of which are essentially extractive processes that only require a low level of technical skill. To begin to move Sub-Saharan Africa out of its current levels of poverty to prosperity, significant investment need to be made in the manufacturing sector. This calls for relevant and up to date engineering skills.

Failure of Engineering Education in Sub Sharan Africa

An investigation by the World Bank has found that Sub-Saharan Africa  is simultaneously experiencing  both a shortage of skilled and experienced engineers, and severe unemployment for graduate engineers (Mohamedbhai 2014). This scenario is leading to a shortage of  engineering skills that is so severe that it has become a major constraint to economic growth in the region.  The main reason for university graduates failing to secure meaningful jobs within engineering is that they lack the necessary skills and experience to be employable. These graduates often end up  severely underemployed in non-graduate roles in both the formal and informal economic sector, and they are unlikely to ever  secure proper engineering roles over their lifetimes. Given that university programmes are often three or four years long, this constitutes a severe waste in terms of human and economic resources.

Why Engineering programmes are failing students and national economies

There are several reasons why university engineering programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa are failing. This includes a severe lack of funding, a shortage of  experienced  academics that is compounded by high staff turnover, and a lack of innovation in approaches to learning and teaching (Mohamedbhai 2014).  Whilst there have been some attempts to introduce student-focussed, active learning methods such as problem based learning in recent years, an engineering student in Sub-Saharan Africa is most likely to go through a content-led, teacher-focussed programme delivered by a relatively inexperienced academic team who primarily deliver their teaching in pretty much the same way they were taught during their student days. This is usually the deductive teaching approach that is characterised by a first year  that focusses on basic mathematics and science, followed by engineering fundamentals in Years 2 and 3, and ending with a focus on  realistic engineering problems and engineering practice in the final year project. Such an approach is theory-heavy and lacking in adequate  student-exposure to engineering practice.

Comparison with 19th century engineering education

Current engineering education practice merits comparison with engineering education in the period 1750 to 1850 when  advances in engineering took the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world,  from an agrarian economy to the industrial age. Then, the primary mode of engineering education was through apprenticeships, with prospective engineers learning their trade  from experienced practitioners. Not only that, ambitious engineers made efforts to progress their own learning by enrolling at the emerging engineering schools across Europe, as was the case with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man who played an important role in advancing the knowledge and practice of railway engineering, bridge building, tunnel construction  and ship building.  In addition, practising engineers also got together to form the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1818 with the primary goal of enabling them to share and advance their knowledge of engineering.

Of Isambard Brunel, it has been said that he was technically astute to the point of being ingenious, extremely bold in championing his ideas, and imbued with consummate communication skills that enabled him to seek and secure funding for his projects (Peters 2011). In short, Isambard Brunel was the technopreneur par excellence.  Passive learning, as experienced by students learning engineering via a deductive process, can never achieve these technical and entrepreneurial skills.

An alternative to deductive engineering education

Teaching-focussed, deductive teaching methods focus primarily on imparting theoretical content to students and offer little opportunities for them to put that knowledge into application. This is incontrast to the recommendations made by UNESCO in 1996 that an effective education should be guided by the following principles:

  • Learning to know – becoming inspired, discovering and exploring, developing a passion for learning, acquiring knowledge and understanding of ourselves, our immediate world and beyond
  • Learning to do – gaining skills, confidence, competence and practical abilities
  • Learning to live together – learning tolerance, mutual understanding and interdependence, sharing the experience of learning with family and friends
  • Learning to be – developing ourselves, our mental and physical capacity, wellbeing and autonomy, and our ability to take control of our lives and influence the world around us.

Active learning methods, such as the design-based Integrated Engineering Programme developed at University College London (Bains et al. 2014), are specifically designed to achieve all of the four UNESCO principles. In such approaches, students are introduced and taught engineering skills (learning to know), and, beginning from the first year of engineering studies, they learn to put this knowledge into practice (learning to do). Most of their learning is team-based, and is aimed at using engineering knowledge to solve problems and challenges within industry and within the communities that they live in (learning to live together). As the students progress from the first year to the final graduation year, they progressively transform into practising engineers with a sufficient theoretical and skills base that enable them to be immediately useful in engineering upon graduation (learning to be).

A connected approach to engineering education

Universities all over the world have often been labelled as ivory towers. This moniker signifies their isolation and aloofness from the real world.  However, the type of learning advocated by active learning methods can not take place in isolation. Students have to connect their learning to the real world, and they have to connect the knowledge that they are acquiring to the emerging knowledge in their fields by staying in touch with the current research in their disciplines.  In addition, students have to develop an awareness of developments in other related disciplinary areas by maintaining links with students,  practitioners and other knowledge sources in different, but relevant, disciplines.  A curriculum that facilitates all these links is referred to as a connected curriculum, and it enables students to acquire relevant theoretical knowledge whilst increasing their own relevance to their own professions (Fung  2017).  At a minimum, for an engineering school to develop an effective connected curriculum, they must engage collaboratively with industry, and with the local community, which, for Sub Saharan Africa, means engaging with the ubiquitous informal sector as well.

Working collaboratively with industry

Szirmai, et al (2013) argue that it is time that Sub Saharan Africa view the education system “not merely as a supplier of appropriately schooled labour, but as an integral part of the national innovation system.”  Such an approach would require educational institutions, public research organizations and productive firms to interact with each other at all levels. As expected , within the engineering context, this would involve more students gaining opportunities for internship with local companies. In addition to this, however, industry should play an active role in  the development and delivery of the engineering curriculum. Given the shortage of academics with relevant practical experience, industry should contribute to skills development by enabling their own engineers to  partner with university academics  in developing and delivering teaching. For instance, practising engineers could develop practice-based, realistic, engineering problem sets that are based on current industrial practice, and also contribute to project supervision as well.  Where problem based learning is used, the increased opportunities for interaction between students and the experienced, practising engineers enable students to improve their skills in engineering practice.

Acting as knowledge and skills hubs for the informal sector

The private sector in most African economies is dominated by small and micro firms, most of which are in the informal sector (Szirmai, et al 2013).  These micro firms often lack the capital and the skills to develop into full-fledged firms that offer reliable and sustainable employment opportunities. Universities could step into this gap by providing these firms with the necessary skills and knowledge. This could involve academics and students working with these firms to address the problems that the firms are experiencing. For instance, students can look at production processes  within a firm, and propose technological solutions that make production processes more efficient and cost-effective.  In this way students learn to apply their knowledge to real-life situations, thus preparing them for their own careers. Importantly, as well, students learn to be entrepreneurial, and by the time they finish their studies they will be better prepared to set up their own ventures, or be in a position to take up roles within aspirational firms in the informal sector, thereby making it possible for these firms to grow and eventually become part of the country’s formal sector.

References

Bains, S.,  Mitchell, J.E., Nyamapfene, A. and Tilley, E. (2014). Work in progress: Multi-displinary curriculum review of engineering education. UCL’s integrated engineering programme. Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON), 2015 IEEE, 844 – 846

Filmer, Deon; Fox, Louise. 2014. Youth Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa. Africa Development Forum;. Washington, DC: World Bank and Agence Française de Développement.

Fung, D. (2017). A connected curriculum for Higher Education. UCL Press. Available at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/a-connected-curriculum-for-higher-education

Mohamedbhai, G. (2014). Improving the Quality of Engineering Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: World Bank Report

Peters, R.G. (2011). Brunel: ‘The Practical Prophet’. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/brunel_isambard_01.shtml

Szirmai, A., Gebreeyesus, M., Guadagno, F. and Verspagen,B. (2013) ‘Promoting productive employment in sub-Saharan Africa. A review of the literature’, UNUMERIT
Working Paper 2013-062.

UNESCO.(1996). Learning: The treasure within. UNESCO Publishing, Paris.

3 thoughts on “Africa: The case for engineering curriculum transformation

  1. This is such an eye opening case study. From my point of view of Zimbabwe Engineering fraternity, there are other factors that affect engineering education, these include
    1. Lecturer remuneration
    2. Lack of sufficient educational materials
    3. Theory based out dated syllabus
    4. Lack of proper prior career guidance to prospective engineering students
    5. Lecturers without a strong practical Engineering background

    After graduation the graduates face challenges which include
    1. Lack of companies willing to train them into useful problem solvers, most companies prefer technicians who are experienced.
    2. Most companies do not offer the graduate training programme hence employers are limited to government subsidiaries where the learning environment is not conducive.

    All ISSUES ZERO DOWN TO FUNDING. For a graduate to develop and start a company from projects there is need for financial assistance. Zimbabwe does not have the capacity to be funding startups which are sustainable or rather, the funding available is subjective ( Environmental and Political factors).

    Students are willing to develop sustainable innovative projects but there is need for financial backing for sustenance. The economy is such that if you have no source of income, then you are unable to survive.

    Even after coming up with an innovative idea/project, if there is no direct funding, the idea is either left, stolen or used elsewhere with no benefits to the innovator.

    Regarding the female engineering community, There is gender imbalance due to cultural issues where the woman is looked down upon and expected to stay at home. In as much as there is effort voiced out for a paradigm shift, the problem still exists. The industry is skeptical about how woman will be able to balance family (getting married, pregnant, raising children) and work. Demanding positions of authority are normally reserved for man whilst the lower positions are regarded as ideal for woman.

    Like

    • Hi Tamara, this is a very thorough analysis of the situation pertaining to engineering education in Africa, and in Zimbabwe in particular. As you correctly identify, it is all down to two issues: funding and the cultural environment. To bring change we need sufficient funding to sustain a step change, and in my opinion getting access to the necessary funding is paramount. Thanks for the input.

      Like

  2. Dear Tamara,

    You hit the engineering nail on the head repeatedly in this summary. It is a problem that has worsened as technologies in engineering become increasingly entwined with others, such as those in electronics and computing for example, so the requirements for expertise in those fields in academia and industry become ever more critical.

    All the best with your endeavours!

    Regards

    Like

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