"Training Engineers for the Global Century" by Prof Michael Adewumi, PhD, FNSE


 Keynote Lecture  delivered on  at Nigerian Academy of Engineering Lecture

Michael Adewumi, PhD, FNSE, is Vice Provost for Global Programs, Professor of Petroleum & Natural Gas Engineering, The Pennsylvania State University, University, Park, PA 16802

July 6th, 2017

Thank you very much for your generous approbation. It is indeed a great honor for me to address this very distinguished gathering!

Preamble: Madam President, Distinguished Fellows of Nigerian Academy of Engineering, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is both a privilege to be here among this very distinguished audience - intellectual giants, captains of the industry and renowned public servants. Usually, when I have been in gatherings like this one, members are mostly Americans and I am usually part of a very tiny minority. So, for me, standing here among fellow Nigerians so distinguished and very accomplished is a special blessing. When I was a young boy, I never would have dreamed that I would be asked one day by some of Nigeria’s best and brightest to address them! This is made possible by the grace of God and the help of many along the way.

There is a saying that when someone appears to be taller among the crowd, it is because s/he is standing on the shoulders of others! I am indeed standing on the shoulders of giants, some of whom are actually here today. I would like to acknowledge some of them. I will mention them by name in chronological orders – as they popped into my life.

Professor G.K. Falade, retired Professor of Petroleum Engineering at the University of Ibadan because of his immeasurable impact on my training as an engineer.

The late Engr. Teju Oyeleye, the first Nigerian General Manager of the then WNTV/WNBS - the first and best in sub-Saharan Africa.

Engr. (Mrs.) J. O. Maduka, one of the most accomplished engineers in Nigeria – male and female.

Engr. Dr. Olumide Phillips for setting an enviable example in capacity building in the Nigerian Petroleum Industry.

Madam President, with your permission, I would like to dedicate this lecture to Professor Falade, Engrs. Oyeleye, Engr. (Mrs.) Maduka, and Engr. Dr. Phillips.

b: Let me begin with the obvious, at least obvious to this audience. Engineers are problem solvers – we are trained to solve problems – human problems! An important prerequisite to solving a problem is being able to define it. If we can’t define a problem, then how can we solve it!

Actually, this makes engineering fairly unique, compared to many other disciplines. It is often said that scientists want to know why – as the end in itself; but the engineer wants to know why, as a means to the end, which is how.

In some other disciplines, people simply want to talk about issues. In my current role, I work with very bright people, intellectuals from a wide variety of disciplines. Many a time, as an engineer, while they are talking about issues, my engineering mind is pondering, “What is the real issue here, and what can I do to fix it?”

In the next few minutes, I will attempt to define the problem facing Nigerian engineering education, as I see it within the global landscape. Then, I will suggest some solution pathways.

My current responsibility as Vice Provost for Global Programs at Penn State over the past decade has given me a fairly unique vantage point as I have interacted with higher education leaders across the globe. I have become an avid student of global higher education in general and engineering education in particular. This has given me a broad perspective on the global landscape of higher education - in addition to that of the US! Let me state, with all humility, that what I would be sharing is heavily influenced by my global lenses!

My Basic thesis: Let me submit upfront what I believe. We need to train globally-competitive and locally-relevant engineers in the 21st Century.

In the next few minutes, I would like to define some of the salient issues confronting Engineering Education in Nigeria. I will then discuss potential resolution strategies. In doing so, I will like to go beyond the usual prescription that I receive from colleagues in Nigerian Universities, which is lack of funding. And yes, funding is needed, but we need much more valuable commodity – innovative ideas and approaches to engineering education.

Before we can completely define the problem, we must discuss the environment. In Thermodynamics, you can only define the system as a subset of the environment. The environment influences the behavior of the system. So, the first thing that we must do is to look at the global imperatives for engineering education in the 21st C.

I will explore today’s global landscape and will discuss some of the imperatives for engineering education and the need to think globally and to be globally engaged in the 21st Century – the so-called global century. I will then address those imperatives within the context of Nigeria.

I would like to begin by setting in global context the broader challenges faced by engineering education.

I will do this by borrowing from the work of the best-selling author and popular New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman, whose writing on globalization is very frequently cited. He is one of my favorite authors on the subject.

In his 2005 bestseller, The World is Flat, Friedman claims that borders are a thing of the past. For Friedman, the world is no longer made up of nations or nationalities.

Instead, he envisions a world made up of lions and gazelles—lions being the world’s superpowers and gazelles being the developing countries. In order to appreciate the gravity of this analogy, you have to cast your mind back to the plains of Serengeti in East Africa, where the gazelle makes a good meal for the lion.

Just like in the Serengeti, Mr. Friedman believes that we live in a survival-of-the-fittest world, where entrepreneurial competition is always in flux, economic instability is never-ending, and where, according to Friedman [QUOTE] “the weak will fall farther behind.” [END QUOTE]. In his 2008 sequel, titled, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman discusses how environmental challenges, such as climate change and population explosion, heighten the competition for resources in a “flat world.”

Friedman’s flat-world framework suggests a Darwinian model for globalization. On one hand, the breaking of barriers is beneficial because it increases our interconnectivity—which is a good thing.

It compels us to realize our interdependence and allows for the open sharing of information. If done right, it could make us better global citizens, better stewards of our environment, and certainly better stewards of our limited resources.

On the other hand, this level playing field could result in the less powerful nations –with fewer resources - falling prey to the more powerful and better-resourced nations, just like the gazelle falls prey to the lion!

In contrast, consider another scenario in the Serengeti where lions would sometimes cooperate to kill a bigger game, like wildebeest. Once downed, they all gather together, without much fighting and with each having her fill! And the opposite effect happens when the wildebeest bunch together; the lion would always retreat, because there is strength in cooperation! Collaborative engagement is the key to success, especially in the 21st C.

From the foregoing, we can see somethings that define the global landscape in the 21st Century. The salient ones are:

Managing limited natural resources with a burgeoning population

Maintaining the integrity of the environment with growth

Global Interdependence and ability to function as a global citizen

It is within this global context that I will examine some of the issues facing engineering education in Nigeria.

Issue No. 1: One-Dimensional Training

The first issue I see with Engineering Education in Nigeria is that it is largely one-dimensional. It is strong on technical knowledge – on facts! The student receives an incredible dose of technical knowledge – but little else!

Engineering students do not dabble into subjects like history, arts, music, economics, management, international relations, or psychology. Nor are they provided what is called soft skills – communication, leadership, team building, etc. Even more damaging is that they are not taught how to integrate disparate knowledge in a coherent fashion to address emerging unfamiliar problems.

Now, one might ask, “Why do engineers need to know these subjects?” I would argue that it is vital that we do! After all, the job of the engineers is to solve human problems by creating products and processes that make life better for human; so it might be useful for the engineer to have some understanding of the people whose lives they are attempting to make better.

It would be useful for them to have some idea about the market forces that shape the adoption of their product and process. Need I say more!

I will submit that they need to be trained to think three-dimensionally - the technical dimension, the environmental dimension and the human dimension. Engineers must remind ourselves that their goal is not creating a product or process, but rather to make life better for people. It therefore makes sense for us to attempt to understand the people for whom we are creating product or process.

We must also realize that we only have this small planet, Earth, with rapidly burgeoning population putting much pressure on limited non-renewable resources, and thus putting into jeopardy the welfare of future generations.

The world is not as simple as it once was. Global economic order, the internet, the “flattening” of the earth– these are all realties of the 21st Century. We are all interdependent, hence we need to work together collaboratively while also competing to be our best. Future engineers will need to work alongside people from around the world, in a variety of capacities. In order to do so, they must be well-rounded; they must understand how to operate in a global world. They must understand and harness cultural nuances.

Issue 2: Ignoring Local Context

A second issue is that engineering education in Nigeria is almost completely divorced from the reality of students’ life experiences. Let me give an example.

A Nigerian student, who grew up in the rural area, having been successful in the relevant exams, is admitted to study Mechanical Engineering, say at UNILAG.

Having grown up in such an environment, water is fetched from the stream, cloth washing is done by hand using native soap, fields are cultivated using hoes and cutlasses, etc. Basically, he has accumulated years of experience in simple agrarian life

Then, this student arrives at UNILAG. The first days in class, his professor begins the lesson by talking about designing automation of cars – driverless cars. Why – because that’s what is making the news in the US. This poor student has never even the inside of an internal combustion engine. The student is left to imagine the unimaginable rather than building on what she is familiar with using her previous knowledge as a building block. This student is forced to learn everything from up-down rather than ground-up. He not only needs to grasp basic engineering concepts, he needs to imagine a context that is so foreign to him that you might as well be talking about the Mars!

This type of education ignores the student’s life journey and suddenly transposed into a different stratosphere. So much of the knowledge gained over the course of her life is now declared irrelevant, during his engineering training! That creates what we often refer to in mathematical modeling as a jump discontinuity. It would have been more effective to provide an opportunity for an open sharing of experiences, and then build a coherent value-adding knowledge. I would suggest that it is much more relevant than knowledge that is Western-centric!

Here is another example. When I was an Engineering student, many years ago, all my textbooks in Petroleum Engineering had one thing in common – they all focused on oil fields in Texas. This is because all of my textbooks came from the United States.

Now obviously, the issue of Western cultural dominance extends beyond Engineering and even beyond academics – but to me, this is particularly outrageous. We do not need to look to Texas for examples of Petroleum fields – we do not even need to look elsewhere in Africa! After all, Nigeria is the number one producer of oil on the African continent, and has been for some time. Our students should be learning about our own Petroleum fields!

This type of training desensitizes students to their own local contexts. It, in effect, reduces the amount of stake they feel they have in Nigeria, divorcing them from the reality of their own country and people.

As Vice Provost for Global Programs, one of my mottos is “Think Globally, Act Locally.” If we do not find a way to educate our students about the issues relevant to Nigeria, we cannot expect them to act on those issues.

Issue 3: Job Expectations

The third issue I see in Engineering Education is the issue of job expectations. Most Nigerians attend engineering schools and expect that when they graduate, they would be employed by a multinational corporation, and enjoy good earnings for the rest of their working life.

While this view of the profession may have been true at one time, though certainly not for everyone, the present reality is much more complex, even in developed countries.

We no longer live in a “punch-in, punch-out” world. S/he should be thinking on how to create value by solving local problems and bringing such solutions to the market place, thereby creating jobs, rather seeking jobs! There are so many problems waiting to be solved. If engineers have solutions to any of these problems, there are people willing to pays for it.

In order to do this, engineers do not only need technical knowledge; they need a variety of skills, and the correct mindset, to succeed in the new Global Century. Life-long learning is needed to continuously re-tool for the ever-changing world.

With these issues briefly defined, now, it is time to suggest what can be done to fix it.

Educating Successful Engineers for the 21st Century

Beyond merely understanding the technical dimension of the profession – which is, of course, a prerequisite for success – 21st century engineers must be three-dimensional thinkers. This means that they must have:

Technical competency

Local contextualization

Global competency

The problems facing Nigeria are intricately linked with the rest of the globe, and engineering students must understand this fact. To ensure that they do, some serious changes must be made to the way we train them – to the way we teach them how to think.

So how do we go about training an engineer who thinks in these three dimensions? I would like to suggest a few steps.

Step 1: Integrate  Knowledge


The first step is that teachers must be much more than just purveyors of contents. Today, the savvy student can source technical contents from a wide variety of sources – just google it!

As I stated earlier, there seems to be a decoupling of the Nigerian students’ life experiences from his/her engineering training. How can that be! It makes no sense to ignore the gifts, skills, talents, and knowledge that people have gathered over the course of their lives. To train a successful engineer, we must have a seamless integration between what they already experience and what they need to know! For example, while teaching gaming theory or probability, why not focus on the game of Ayo instead of baseball!

At Penn State, our University President, Eric Barron, uses an analogy that I would like to borrow here. You see, Penn State is a world-class research institution. We have some of the most renowned, world-class sought-after researchers in the entire world.

Most of these researchers are happy to speak with students one-on-one, or provide them research opportunities. Nevertheless, many students who attend Penn State go through their entire academic career without taking advantage of all of the resources the university has to offer. They get up, they go to class, and then they return to their dorm room, do homework, pass exams and play video games or watch television.

President Barron likens this approach to buying a sports car – he uses the example of a Corvette – and drive it at 20 miles per hour. Essentially, you are ignoring all of the potential and, in fact, misusing the car. What’s the point of using paying the hefty price for a sports car if you are not going to put your foot to the pedal!

This is the situation with the current engineering education in Nigeria. Students come to us with such a rich experiences/background and so much to offer – and we ignore their potential in order to mold them into what we believe they must be – like a typical western-centric engineer.

Take, for example, a typical Nigerian child. A typical Nigerian child has undeniable entrepreneurial experience. I know when I was a child, I used to hawk goods for my mother at the marketplace, and I know that I was not the only one!

Nigerian children, through life experience, have an innate understanding of the economics of supply and demand. They know that if they’re the only family in town that sells baskets, they can charge more than if they have a competitor. Nigerians already have entrepreneurial spirit; all they need is some formal training which builds on concepts which they already know.

So instead of teaching about oil reservoirs in Texas; instead of talking about an internal combustion engine; let us incorporate existing knowledge into the curriculum. Let us learn from the highly skilled weavers in Nigeria – perhaps after we know enough, we could help design a better weaving machine! And let us learn about Nigerian oil fields - not American ones.

It is imperative to use local knowledge and understanding. The curriculum must first be localized before the knowledge gained can be used globally.

Step 2: Three-Dimensional Education

Beyond localizing the curriculum, we must also make it multi-faceted. We must build on the inherent experiences of Nigerians, yes; but we must also give them tools to expand their skills and their ways of thinking. We must, in essence, teach them to think three-dimensionally. They can no longer rely on getting a steady, long-term job right out of university. We must teach them to find ways to create jobs, not just work them.

Engineers must have some level of competency in a variety of areas. Therefore, we must offer – and require – courses in areas such as economics, business, international politics, foreign languages, marketing, psychology, and the like. A well-rounded engineer will be built for success in the Global Century.

This goes beyond offering separate courses, however. In fact, these concepts must be integrated into the Engineering curriculum itself. Engineers must be trained within an interdisciplinary framework, and must learn this within their Engineering courses as well as outside of them. It is a complete paradigm shift – but one that is necessary.

Let me give you a possible example. Let us say that an Engineer discovers a new chemical composition that makes good, quality cloth-washing detergent for a lower cost than other soaps. If they do not already work for a soap company, what are they to do? Perhaps they could sell this new discovery to Leventis. But how would they know whether that was the right decision to make? And what if they wanted to start up their own company?

We must teach Engineers, both conceptually and practically, how to file patents, handle marketing and advertising, and even in some cases how to figure out an entirely new delivery system for a product. In essence, we must teach them to think “beyond the job.”

Step 3: Creative Application for Local and Global Problems

My final suggestion follows this thinking. You see, in Nigeria, we produce thousands of engineers every year. The vast majority of them are at the very least competent; very many of them are high-quality; and, I know for a fact we have some excellent engineering minds in this country. Despite all of this, Nigeria still lacks basic infrastructure. Why is this?

We are an oil-rich country – the number one producer on the African continent, with possibly the lowest cost of production per barrel in the world – and yet many of our citizens are completely without power. Even in major cities like Lagos, most citizens can only truly rely on a supply of electricity for a few hours per day.

Obviously, these issues are multifaceted and heavily systemic. However, at the most basic level, I believe that a large part of the problem is that these Nigerian engineers are not thinking of the bigger picture. This needs to change. To succeed, both individually and as a country, Nigerian engineers in the 21st century must be resourceful, creative and be locally relevant. They must use the resourcefulness of their childhood – of their local context – and apply it to larger issues.

Take, for example, clay pots. I’m sure many of you have seen these pots in Nigerian family homes – some of you may even have used them yourselves some time on your lives. These are clay pots used to keep water cool naturally – they serve almost the purpose of natural refrigerator! These clay pots are truly incredible. They are simple, but incredibly effective. Why has no one researched the properties of these clay pots, improve its performance and searched for other applications?

Another example. In many areas, mostly in the more rural parts of Nigeria, many families still use Kerosene lamps as a light source at night. We now know the Kerosene is harmful to health. What if we found a way to use solar lamps? Nigeria gets plenty of sun. It would save families money on buying Kerosene, and may very well save lives. So why are we not working on this possibility?

Engineers must begin to think holistically. They must combine the technical, the entrepreneurial, the local, and the global. They must, in essence, always ask, “What is the real issue here, and what can we do to fix it?”

The Role of the NAE

As the body of the foremost engineering thinkers in Nigeria, NAE has an important role to play in this process. If you think, as I do, that we must make fundamental changes to the way we educate engineers, then I encourage you to lead the way in spearheading this new approach.

There are some possible ways in which NAE can make a difference. Some are mentioned below:

Informing Policy – persuading policymakers to hands-off engineering education

Curriculum reform – that avoids cookie-cutter approach but seeks innovation

Contextualization – ensuring seamless integration between the local and the global

Outcome-focused – pursue outcome-based engineering education

Making use of the diaspora community – rapidly deploy army of technocrats to help


Th 21st C. needs a different type of engineers that was needed in the 20th C. Engineering schools in the US and much of the developed countries recognize this and they are working hard to make amend. I am part of this process for my discipline. But, we cannot and must not wait and copy their product – the result of what is best for the western-centric engineer. We must come up with a home-grown solution that respects our values, our cultures and even our idiosyncrasies, but more importantly our local context. The guiding principle must be an outcome-based engineering education, in which we must define upfront what we want the Nigerian engineer of the 21st century to know and be. We, as NAE must provide the much needed leadership – provide an effective framework within which for the engineering teachers could use their creative talents to foster. Now is the time for NAE to be asking the important engineering principle to engineering education: “What is the real issue here?” – and – “What can we do to fix it?”

We must blend the local with the global. We must leverage our resources – a home and dispersed all over the world. We must solve problems like Nigerians, using all of the expertise and life experience we have gained, rather than trying to force ourselves to think in the mold of Euro-American centric way.

If we make these fundamental changes, I truly believe that Nigerian engineers will prosper in the Global Century.

Thank you very much for your time. It has been an honor to be here today.

Post a Comment

Post a Comment (0)