Why Nigerian graduates ‘re not globally competitive –Nigerian-born US undergraduate

Aisha Balogun is a Nigerian born undergraduate at the University of Wyoming, United States of America. The teenage undergraduate who is a third year student of Computer Engineering, is already giving back to the Nigerian society through her interventions at the University of Ilorin, Kwara state. In a chat with AMEH JOHN she offers fascinating insights as to why graduates of Nigerian varsities lack the necessary skills to compete with their contemporaries in America and Europe.

What is studying for a college degree like in the US?

Right from my first year at University of Wyoming in the United States (US), I have been participating in undergraduate research at my department, the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

We were introduced to Arduino Microcontroller and Raspberry Pi. Raspberry pi is a credit card size computer. We learn about programming in C, C++ and Python and build various projects with the devices. During the summer, we have workshops for teachers (kindergarten to 12th grade teachers), who come from all over US to learn about programming with the devices.

The goal of the workshop is for teachers to incorporate their knowledge of programming with these devices into their school curriculum and teach their students.

What is the use of the Arduino Microcontrollers technology?                

You could use the Arduino Microcontrollers to do a whole lot of things because it is a programmable device. It does specific tasks really fast and really well. For instance, cars are made up of hundreds of microcontrollers. Microcontrollers could also be used to build digital devices and interactive objects that can sense and control objects in the physical and digital world.

What are some of the tasks that you could perform with the microcontroller?

An Arduino could be used to make smartphone-controlled power outlets, home automation and security systems. Some projects I have worked on using the Arduino include a joystick controlled robotic car with automatic braking system, a weather station that displayed temperature, humidity and light intensity, a distance meter which measured distances up to 4 meters and a Fruit Detector which identified various fruits based on their resistance values.

Why are you back in Nigeria?

I just concluded the first semester of my third year and I came to spend my holiday at home. I was thinking of a way to give back, so I decided to organise a workshop on Arduino Microcontrollers in Nigeria. I specifically chose to have the workshop at the University of Ilorin because I studied computer science for a year at University of Ilorin before leaving for University of Wyoming.

So, before I came home, I talked with the Honors College and the Electrical and Computer Engineering department of my school about having a workshop on Arduino Microcontrollers at the University of Ilorin. I talked with them about the funds to procure Arduino microcontroller kits. An Arduino microcontroller itself is a handheld programmable device, but the full kit consists of several sensors, so it includes all these extra things that one can work with and use to develop things.

My college was generous enough to buy 30 of these kits (which are listed at #25,000 on Jumia); 25 kits for the participants of the workshop and then five kits for the facilitators of the workshop; people who assisted me while I was delivering the workshop.

How would you assess the outcome of the workshop at Ilorin?                          

I would say the workshop was a success; the turnout was more than anticipated. I had planned for 25 participants and I had brought kits from school for that number. Twenty-five tickets to the workshop were listed online at N2000 (which was used to purchase refreshments for the three days of the workshop). The tickets sold out within a week and I had people reach out saying they were interested but not able to register in time. There were people who showed up to the venue requesting to participate even though they were not able to register, one of whom was an alumnus of the university. I also had two students from Abuja who flew in to Ilorin to participate in the workshop. I had students from all sorts of disciplines (Physics, Maths, Computer Science, Computer Engineering and Social Works) and students from all undergraduate levels. A diverse mixture of students showed interest in the workshop.

I am really grateful to the facilitators who assisted me during the workshop.

And what was the feedback like?

I requested feedback from the participants on the last day of the three-day workshop and they were all truly impressed with it. They were particularly happy to have had practical exposure to some concepts they had learned in classes as well as new concepts. They were also excited that they got to keep the Arduino kits.

One participant said “I feel a sense of power surge to go further in my career.” The participant also said he had plans to participate in the Engineering Project Exhibition (EPEX) at the university, using the experience and knowledge gotten from the Arduino kits to come up with a project.

Some participants suggested having more facilitators and covering bigger and more involved projects.

What are the plans of carrying on with the project even in your absence?

I spoke with the vice chancellor of University of Ilorin regarding organising this workshop again in the coming years and he showed much interest in the proposal. He requested to meet with the facilitators of the workshop to discuss further so I am hopeful that this workshop would not be the last of its kind.

Also, I shared my contact with the participants in case they needed to reach out for help with the material we went through during the workshop, or some other project using the microcontroller.

Why didn’t you bring in lecturers while you planning for the workshop?

 At some point I thought about having the workshop for the lecturers themselves rather than the students similar to the way my research group at University of Wyoming does it, but I was worried it would not have been as effective as having it for the students.

If I had had the workshop for the lecturers, the lecturers would not have had the facilities to supply that knowledge to the students. When we have the workshop for teachers in the US, we give them five extra Arduino kits for each participant for them to take to their schools and then teach their students with them. But being that I had my school (University of Wyoming) sponsor this workshop, I figured it would be more effective to teach the students directly since  125 kits (five times 25 participants) would have been a lot to request for, rather than teaching the lecturers and not leaving them with the resources to pass on their knowledge to the students. 

What do you think Engineering faculties in Nigeria should do to support this sort of research work?

To the vice chancellors, lecturers and other school administrators in Nigeria, I challenge you to explore. Go out and gain practical knowledge and experience; travel and learn from developed countries and then come back to teach your students and build on the experience you have had.

I know Nigeria cannot be compared with the United States in terms of technological advancement or the education system; we are not on the same level, but if we keep limiting ourselves to what we have on ground then we can never get better. Even if our lecturers cannot travel, they should reach out to professors and colleges in the United States and other countries, they are usually very willing to help. My university helped me with this workshop and collected nothing in return, and if they could do this, that shows there are other many more universities out there that are willing to cooperate with educators in Nigeria, may be through lecture materials, or even sending professors to help impart the practical knowledge in students.

How would you compare the Nigerian university system with that of the United States?

The education systems are very different. Education in the United States does not just focus on theoretical knowledge like in Nigeria. I have had classes where I have had to build projects that imitate self-driving cars like autonomous vehicles, and I have had so much lab experience and practicality in general, which I definitely did not get in my first year at the University of Ilorin.

There is a lot of emphasis on having hands on skills, much so, internships both within and outside the school is highly encouraged. I had an internship with a simulation software company ANSYS last summer and I accepted an internship offer with Twitter for this coming summer.

Education in the United States is also very flexible. In my first semester at University of Wyoming, I took four courses and that was by choice, but in my first year at University of Ilorin, I had to take nine courses, one of which was Plant Biology. I feel the need to mention this because till date, I have not been able to comprehend what possible relevance Plant Biology was to a degree in Computer Science, much so, to have it as a mandatory course.

What else do you do at your university?

I work four jobs at my university and I am also involved in extracurricular activities on campus. I work as a Lab Assistant for the IT department in my school and I also work as a cashier for a convenience store on campus. My other two jobs are research based. I work with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and also with the Electrical and Computer Engineering department of my school. In my school research, besides organising workshops for teachers I also work with a humanoid robot called Nao. Working with Nao, I developed a module on the implementation of humanoid robots in pediatric care and lead a demo at Wyoming Medical Society Annual Meeting.

What is the applicability of this robot to pediatric medicine?                   

The module was developed based on a scenario whereby a kid is sitting in the waiting room of a hospital, waiting to see a doctor. The kid is very tense and nervous; and to relieve some of that pressure, we would have the robot talk to the kid. Nao would start up the conversation and based on your responses, it may talk to you about what to expect during a checkup visit, guide you through a breathing relaxation technique, and perform age appropriate activities. If interested, Nao would count numbers from one to ten with the kid and also sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Nao could also tell knock knock jokes and play a game of riddles.

Would you return to Nigeria after your studies?

 Yes. I definitely plan to do that. My goal right now is to graduate from school, gain some experience working in the United States and then come home to start a business where I can apply the skills I would have acquired.

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