Education

Teaching engineering design in a pre-industrialized West African context

The weather is hot. Every creature longs for cold water.
Lions, elephants or the birds will travel or fly to locations where they can find it.
Primitive people know that porous pots will give them slightly colder water than the environment.
A physicist can explain that this colder water is obtained by the latent heat of evaporation released from the water.
An engineer capitalizes on that idea and recycles the latent heat of evaporation using a compressor to get freezing level temperature.

That freezer just described is technology or, more accurately, a technological product. The clay pot is also technology. The difference between the primitive technology and advanced technology as we see here is the mediation of science and the scientific method. When we use the scientific method to create a technological product, we are doing engineering.

What it means to Design

Finned heat sink in an inverter

To design, in any field, is to outline a plan. In engineering, it is to outline the plan for creating a product to meet consumer demand. It involves a number of related steps. If the product already exists in some form, we are trying to orchestrate a plan to make a better product by improving the existing one. If it is an original design, we are starting with a blank sheet and outlining the product creation from scratch.

Mechanical Design, as have been taught in universities for the past 100 years usually emphasizes designing for strength: so the product may withstand internal and external loads that may be imposed; design for material usage: use a frugal amount of material to satisfy minimization or cost constraints.

S2PAfrica intern's 3D model of heat sink in Fusion 360

Mechanical design courses usually begin with elementary strength of materials to topics like fluid flow, heat transfer, etc. In our universities, courses on mechanical design are introduced after these fundamentals have been covered. It is often left to the student to use these to design products. Unfortunately, this occurs so late in the program that students often fail to see the connection between these fundamental courses and mechanical design. Many students do not even realize that all the courses titled “Mechanics of …” are essentially design courses! The kinematics, physics and the resulting mathematical description become the absorbing concern and the issue of product-making as the primary goal is often forgotten.

For engineers graduating in environments with productive industrial systems, this may not necessarily be too much of an issue. Industry provides mentoring and training programs to efficiently transition university trained engineers into the product making mindset. Their universities are also better equipped to provide some exposure to testing processes that sow the seeds that can later be exploited in the aforementioned industrial programs.

Engineering Ecosystem

In the West African engineering ecosystem, these two key structures are minimal or absent. Students therefore graduate from universities with little more than the theoretical knowledge which is still a long distance to product-making! Interviewing a typical first class student in our ecosystem, they look forward to going to high class institutions in the Western nations and obtain higher degrees. If they are successful, this is not a bad outcome for the students and their families. For the development of product making in our local context, this situation is a disaster in the following ways:

  1. A large percentage of these students do not return after their training overseas. There are better opportunities for them to make a living and develop themselves in the places where they have obtained their higher degrees. Many of those who return home do not last long before they jump back on a plane and move their families to greener pastures. This way, we poorer nations, with meagre resources, subsidize the industry of advanced nations with our best and brightest!
  2. Of those that return and stay, typically within an academic context, the lack of connection between the theory and product-making at the undergraduate level continues to take a toll on: (a) what they teach, (b) what they research and (c) their understanding of the role of university education in creating a technological society.
  3. The in-bred, i.e. those who have had all their engineering education within our ecosystem, do not have significant exposure to how university and industry collaborate to orchestrate a technological society. They are satisfied with “doing papers” that have been accepted in international journals. They do not seem to aware that the“International Journals” only exist because they have firstly solved the local problems of their industry.

Interview a first-class graduate in an industrialized country and ask what they want to do. You find that the majority want to get into the action of product making that can challenge the status quo in their ecosystem! Top students work for top companies and quickly have a plan to become business owners! Of course, a number of them also go to graduate school. The majority do not! It is often more prestigious to gain a position at Boeing, British Aerospace or Siemens than to have been accepted for graduate studies!

This disparity in plan, strategy, and expectations accounts for some of the outcomes we have. Governments gets the thinking that if only we can send our top students to top universities, we will be technologically developed. For decades we have expended millions of dollars on this strategy. As a dean of engineering and someone who writes a number of reference letters and interviews these students, I can report that this effort did nothing to bridge the gap between theory and product making. The current socio-economic-political climate is so terrible that I am not aware of a single returnee from such programs!

[Mission statement of the program, data about the program, other countries in west africa]

This unforced error could have been avoided if the government only talked to some of the older graduates, home and abroad. They would have seen that the monies they spent could have been better utilized in improving their own universities and making them able to perform local challenges better!

S2PAfrica's Mission

The strategy that has been employed in Africa for decades has been unable to translate individual academic success into fuelling nationwide technological development. Not only has it failed to create an industrial ecosystem, worse than that it continues to feed our best and brightest to the established ecosystems overseas. It leaves a majority of local engineering graduates jobless and unemployable.

Our vision is to change the African engineering mindset and be a catalyst for a thriving product development ecosystem in Africa. Our problems, intractable as they may have been, are not impossible to solve! Our mission is therefore to facilitate the making of product minded engineers.

The training of engineers must be product focused from beginning to the end. It must make the students know that to be an engineer is to be a provider of solutions, using the best science and technologies available, to solve the problems that are local
S2PAfrica intern working on a model to be printed on a 3D printer

Allies in the Struggle

S2PAfrica intern's simulation of heat sink in Fusion 360

Today, the mechanical design process starts with computerized prototyping. More than at any previous time in history, the state of the art tools for mechanical design are accessible to students everywhere. The business model of the makers of these tools favour making full licenses available for educational use. We can deploy these tools for our students and provide a design education that focuses on product making throughout their university education.

The most important issue is to use mechanical design as the primary driver of engineering training so that the student knows that all she is studying must be geared towards product making.

The most important issue, in our opinion is to bring the training in mechanical design to become the primary driver of engineering training so that the student knows that all she is studying must be geared towards product making.
S2PAfrica intern's simulation of heat sink in Fusion 360

For example, she studies differential equations because the governing laws for material behaviour are best stated in the form of differential equations. She studies numerical solutions – especially Finite Element Analysis, because, these equations are intractable to closed form solution except in their simplest trivial forms; and, once the problem becomes important, we go numerical. She studies the theory of differential equations because, without it, she will not be able to understand how the Finite Elements solutions work. She will need to understand how to set proper boundary conditions even when she has access to power numerical tools.

We also develop a just-in-time theory strategy that brings in the theory at the point of need.

This serves two purposes:

  1. It allows the student to see the need for the theory in question. It is easy, for example to teach differential equations theory after the student has seen that all the governing equations come in the form of nonlinear partial differential equations. After using the simulation packages to simulate with these solutions, she will become excited to know how the solution works. We can also explain to her that the equations are not solvable in closed form.
  2. The student no longer sees theory as boring drudgery that she must pass in order to graduate. Instead, she sees the close connection between what she is learning and the facilities she has been designing with.
  3. We can therefore teach her the difference between craft, skill and engineering design and analysis.

S2PAfrica interns working in the lab on their project

Check out our website for more information about our virtualized laboratories, internship program and how you can join S2PAfrica to change the engineering ecosystem in West Africa.

About the AUTHOR

Prof. Fakinlede is a Mechanical Engineer with a doctoral degree in Computational Mechanics from the University of Alberta, and 35+ years of experience as an educator in two major Nigerian universities. Throughout his career, Prof. Fakinlede has worked tirelessly with donors, government, non-governmental organizations, and various industry partners, to reduce the infrastructural deficit in the practical training of engineers and the acquisition of industry-ready skills. Currently, he heads the IDRC funded project Rethinking the West African engineering ecosystem: New pilots for building capacity in research and advanced training in engineering. You can find out more about this project here.

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