By Achola Kevin

Ever wondered why Kenya suffers from want in engineers yet there are so many engineering graduates? The level of innovation, inventions and research in our engineering departments will go up tremendously should we adopt better pedagogical methods.To fuel our infrastructure drive and take control of our own country, as engineers we must revamp our engineering departments.

 

I was at Kenyatta University on 23rd May 2014 attending a stakeholders meeting towards their efforts to launch two new engineering projects; aerospace and energy engineering. The event was organized by Eng Martin Nzomo the dean of the school of engineering at that university. Industry players like Kenya airways and the Kenya Defense Forces were represented. The main objective was to tailor a syllabus that would be responsive to the industry need.

This is a curious departure from the way most engineering programs are tailored. Most people who went through engineering programs certified by the Engineers Board of Kenya found them and left them the same way they are.

When engineering institutions or personages are mentioned one gets the sense that they are steeped in tradition. There is a sense that things are very static and rigid when engineering is involved. The public opinion that is currently pervasive and dangerous is that these institutions are so hard to move that even winning against them in court of law does not move them. This is however very contrary to the practices and principles of engineering, engineers are the advocates and effectors of change.

There are some differences from the decades ago, of course. There is social media to distract students, computers to assist with computation. The number of students has shot up tremendously due to the incorporation of parallel students. The homework assignments can just be scanned or simply copy pasted from Wikipedia or any other source online. Projectors may find their use in the lecture halls of some universities. The once black board may be white now and the professor may come with an iPad. It is however not hard to tell it is the same old content being passed over in the same old way.

The curriculum and the methods applied in teaching engineering in Kenya were adopted wholesomely from Europe with a little addition from America. In those countries these programs have since evolved to keep up with the times. Emerging ideas have been incorporated into the curricula and new courses adopted.

The following paragraphs present some reasons for considering new methods to tackle the requirements of our times. Some of these 21st century challenges include; environmental issues, safety concerns, financial considerations, sustainability of resources and automation.

We live in the information age ushered in by several technological leaps. The amount of information hitting the engineer in the field is so much compared to what was a few years ago. The information also evolves very fast calling for new methods to keep the curricula up to date.

Currently, it would be folly for one to be strictly equipped in only one discipline and attempt to compete with others. One would need information and communications skills, business skills just to name a few. In the early part of this century, engineering practice could be classified and dispensed along disciplinary lines.

Knowledge in specific disciplines of engineering was well-defined and distinct. The distance to a business man from an engineer was much wider; the situation now is much more complex and intertwined. The decision making process is now more involving and there is need for wholesome understanding of production as a business process and its relation to the entire society.

Industries are getting connected, standardized and certified. It is absurd for our learning institutions to be passed by. Succeeding internationally requires wide cultural and economic understanding. The technological expertise required is also very wide and must be under constant improvement. A telecommunications engineer at Safaricom dealing with M-Pesa must understand how the banking system also works since they must work together for M-pesa to succeed.

There are also emergent issues in production that cannot just be brushed aside from the curricula. Issues like sustainability in the exploitation of resources and the responsibilities engineers have toward the society cannot be ignored. The green movement has also established its own merit and cannot be ignored. The Kenyan government has put in place several stringent measures to promote environmental sensitivity. Environment and safety fundamentals are now basic requirements to any practicing engineer regardless of their area of specialization. The issue of sustainability is particularly important for Kenya as base titanium, Tullow oil PLC and other multinationals busy themselves exploiting our national resources.

The volume of information that engineers are collectively called upon to know is increasing far more rapidly than the ability of engineering curricula to cover it. Up to a decade ago most mechanical engineering graduates say, went to work in the manufacturing industry. Now they are increasingly finding employment in such nontraditional fields as sales, finance, management and environmental practice. Companies such as Davis and Shirtliff majorly recruit graduate engineers to do sales.

To be effective across this broad spectrum of employment possibilities, our graduates should be multi-skilled.No matter how many units and elective courses are offered, however, it will never be possible to teach engineering students everything they will be required to know when they go to work. A better solution may be to shift emphasis away from providing training in an ever-increasing number of specialty areas to providing a core set of science and engineering fundamental skills.

Future graduates of accredited programs by the Engineers Board of Kenya  should possess close qualities to those adopted in the Engineering Criteria 2000 of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)1. To quote them these qualities include; “an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering; an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as analyze and interpret data; an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs; an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams; an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems;  an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility; an ability to communicate effectively;  the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global/societal context; a recognition of the need for and an ability to engage in life-long learning; a knowledge of contemporary issues; an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice.”

Engineers should adopt values which include a willingness to participate, concern for the preservation of the environment, unequivocal commitment to quality and productivity, and involvement in service to others. The fallacious assumption of those who designed the current engineering curricula of throwing a common university unit here and another there just can’t cut it.

What happens in our institutions of higher learning is the traditional learning approach. In this approach to teaching, the professor lectures and assigns readings and well-defined convergent single-discipline problems, and the students listen, take notes, and solve problems individually.

Alternative pedagogical techniques have repeatedly been shown elsewhere to be more effective and much more likely to achieve the objectives of engineering training. Among these techniques are cooperative learning, inductive learning, the assignment of open-ended questions, multidisciplinary problems and problem formulation exercises, the routine use of in-class problem-solving and brainstorming.

Few tutors in Kenya have interest in high quality teaching or would like to do it but feel that they cannot afford to invest the necessary time and effort. The dominant strategy by lecturers is straight lecturing. Lecture classes are designed such that student involvement is essentially limited to passive observation.

Demand for change
At the stakeholders meeting in Kenyatta University Mr Dennis Koweru Omondi a senior technical instructor (A&P) at Kenya airways asked the institution of higher education to stop churning out graduates who are of no use to the industry. He added supported by his two colleagues Mr Amboka and Mr Gatu both instructors in avionics that the graduates they get from the local universities require up to two years additional instruction to be of any use in the aviation industry. This is costly and takes a lot of time forcing them to poach man power from the Kenya Defense forces instead.

It is open secret that progressive engineers and industry have been exerting increasing pressure on universities to pay more attention to the quality of their undergraduate teaching programs. The increased demand for engineers to spur growth in Kenya is further providing impetus to change.

The changes that will move engineering education in the desired directions may be grouped into four categories: revisions in engineering curriculum and course structures; implementation of alternative teaching methods and assessment of their effectiveness; establishment of instructional development programs for faculty members and graduate students; and adoption of measures to raise the status of teaching in society and in institutional hiring, advancement, and reward policies.

To leave things as they are is to continue to look to the rest of the world to handle our projects while complaining about the poverty in our graduates. These efforts to improve the quality of graduates from our universities should involve all the stake holders in engineering from the academia to the industry. Stakeholders’ workshops akin the one at K.U should be supported and encouraged. Without such efforts we will increasingly decry the deficit in innovation we have and the wanting quality of graduates we churn out.

1.    ABET is a non-profit and non-governmental accrediting agency for academic programs in the disciplines of applied science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology. ABET is a recognized accredited in the United States.

 

 

 

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