MIT and Total partner to improve technical instruction in African universities

July 14, 2015

Jessica Fujimori | MISTI

Empowering the Teachers program targets emerging academics to improve skills in curriculum design, instruction, leadership, and research. 

Spring 2014 MIT-Empowering the Teachers Fellows prepare for their final presentations with MIT Professor Akintunde Ibitayo Akinwande (closest to monitor).

(Spring 2014 MIT-Empowering the Teachers Fellows prepare for their final presentations with MIT Professor Akintunde Ibitayo Akinwande (closest to monitor). Photo: MIT-ETT Program)

It’s not easy to change a system from the bottom up, but together, MIT, Total — a global energy company — and a group of young, brilliant African academics are doing just that, through a program called Empowering the Teachers (ETT).

The goal of the program is to improve science and engineering pedagogy at universities in Africa by inviting top young African academics to spend a semester at MIT, observing and experiencing a hands-on, problem-solving approach to teaching. Managed by MIT-Africa, ETT was created in partnership with Total, which is based in France, but has the largest production in Africa.

“We’re changing institutions and universities from the inside out through these ETT fellows,” says Abiodun Afolabi, secretary general Total Exploration and Production Africa. “It’s a ripple effect: Change the professor; change the institute.”

“We began this program with the idea of developing a new leadership cadre for science and engineering,” says Akintunde Ibitayo Akinwande, faculty director of ETT and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. “We think about who can be change agents — who can go in and be leaders and change how the system works.”

When ETT began four years ago, it welcomed fellows in EECS from Nigeria. The program has since expanded to include fellows in mechanical engineering and from Uganda. By this fall, 45 lecturers will have passed through the program.

“We talk to the professors not only about teaching concepts in compelling ways, but also ways they can encourage students to be entrepreneurs,” says Julia Reynolds-Cuéllar, program manager of MIT-Africa.

ETT targets emerging academics to help maximize its impact. “At the lecturer level, they’re still teaching courses, and they have a lot of potential to grow and develop within the university,” Cuellar says. “A lot of fellows have gone back and been quickly promoted to heads of department, so they are able to make an impact in classes and they’re also able to institute policy-level change.”

During their MIT semester, ETT fellows develop their skills in curriculum design, instruction, leadership, and research. The experience is intense, but as all of the program’s graduates attest, highly rewarding.

“I will never forget my time at MIT,” says Michael Lubwama of Makerere University in Uganda. “It was just amazing from start to finish.”

A highlight was the connections he made with people at MIT, Lubwama says. “I met colleagues from the Engineering Management Lab willing to share ideas on how to get a lab set up at Makerere University,” he says. “I also partnered with some MIT PhD students on developing proposals related to clean water supply in Africa.” Many of these connections live on after the program ends: Thirteen fellows have continued an MIT collaboration after graduating ETT.

For many fellows, the program was a chance to observe a new style of teaching.

“There was one thing that was sort of a lightbulb moment for me: the idea that most of students’ learning actually takes place outside the classroom,” says Kayode Peter Ayodele of Obafemi Awolowo University. “True knowledge comes from synthesis, and this most often comes from problems sets and projects. They are not luxuries that can be jettisoned because of our low staff strength, but actually the cornerstone around which the teaching process should be designed.”

Shortly after returning from the program, Ayodele was promoted to head of department at his university; now, he is instituting exciting changes based on his time at MIT.

As a result of ETT, all of the program’s graduates say they have changed their approach to teaching.

“ETT has made me realize that the quality of teaching is not in the volume of materials covered but in the depth of the coverage and the ability of the students to use the concepts taught in developing solutions to real world problems,” says Francis Enejo Idachaba of Covenant University, who was also promoted to the head of his department.

According to surveys of ETT fellows, the program is already having an impact beyond the fellows themselves. Seventy-two percent of past fellows have actively changed their syllabus or curriculum because of the program, and 50 percent have changed teaching policy or approach throughout their entire university.

“We now have recitation classes for all undergraduate classes, where there were none before ETT. Also, all course lecturers are now expected to develop and distribute course packs that contain clear intended learning outcomes and course schedules,” says Ayodele. “I am not aware of any other department in a federal university in Nigeria that has a department-wide policy of this nature.”

Beyond the immediate changes that have grown out of ETT, the program aims to have a long-term impact, with plans to expand to other African countries and more disciplines.

“ETT is still in its early days, but I’m confident we’re going to see major impact in 20-30 years to come,” says Mr. Afolabi. “There will be a change in tertiary education through these scholars.”

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