By Sam Otti
A Nigerian Aerospace Engineer and pilot based in Florida, USA, Onyema Ajuogu, has taken a bold step to promote the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), among youngsters in developing countries. As the founder/president of Benignant STEM Innovation Foundation, she has traversed many countries, including Central America, teaching young girls to take advantage of the unlimited opportunities in the science world.
While enjoying a flourishing career, she recalled her humble beginning in Nigeria many years ago. According to her, during the time she was planning to come to USA for studies, no Nigerian university was offering aerospace engineering as an academic programme, a situation she described as unacceptable.
“I’m not sure if there is any school offering that course now. That shouldn’t be happening in 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,” she noted.
Ajuogu said she decided to launch her project in Nigeria to increase awareness among young students on the need to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Part of the steps to improve the study of these key subjects, she said, was for the Nigerian government to introduce STEM into school curriculum.
According to her, no country could afford to be left behind at an age when economic growth in the world is powered, fundamentally, by scientific and technological innovation. She reasoned that the competition among the developed countries was closely related to their relative capacities to innovate and to win new global markets for their technologically advanced products.
She further explained that through Benignant STEM Innovation Foundation, young people from developing countries around the world would be encouraged to participate in post-secondary education in STEM fields.
“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 up 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 science, technology, engineering and mathematical concepts as well as teach valuable life skills such as teamwork, leadership and innovative thinking,” she explained.
Ajuogu, whose organisation was one of the exhibitors at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, said the festival was a collaboration of over 1,000 of the nation’s leading science and engineering organizations with an expected attendance of over 350,000 participants from around the country.
On the choice of developing countries for the STEM project, she said: “Our organisation focuses on developing countries because that is where technical development needs are much higher. STEM is not only a matter of social justice, but also a matter of nation’s 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.”
She also suggested the inclusion of STEM education in Nigerian education curriculum. According to her, talented students are not entering these fields because they lack adequate exposure and opportunities after graduation. She noted that the development of any nation can be measured by the advancement in infrastructure, technology and the service sectors such as public transportation.
“With a 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”.
Rather than seek paper certificate, Ajuogu advised students to acquire relevant skills and practical knowledge needed in the world. “These days, it is not all about what you learn in the class room, it is the experience you put into it,” she said. “An experiments or hands-on activities that can expose them into 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 activities can enkindle their interest in STEM.”
For Nigeria to become the technology hub of Africa, adequate funding by the government and corporate bodies remains the key. According to Ajuogu, United States corporations are now investing $350 billion annually in STEM education, more than 100 times the scale of President Barack Obama’s unprecedented $3 bilion STEM initiative. “Companies from all sectors have now made STEM education for 21st century jobs their #1 corporate citizenship initiative. Many more companies invest deeply in STEM education as a means of innovating and surviving in the marketplace,” she added.
The pilot said one-day “Innovative Technological Development Through STEM Awareness” would be held in the Nigeria to increase the awareness for adopting STEM projects and its education in Nigeria education system for the nation’s technological development. The event would further introduce Nigerian private sectors, civil society groups, youths and education leaders to STEM projects, and expand public-private partnerships to extend STEM education to all secondary students in Nigeria. Part of the objective is to open a center in Nigeria to house an aircraft building STEM workshop, she said.
She urged the government to identify science as a priority, and to provide the right opportunities for students who wish to pursue their education in STEM. She stressed the need to inspire more young people to get into higher degrees in STEM.
“We 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. 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.”