UNIVERSITIES IN PURSUIT OF INNOVATIVENESS

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Posted on 28th February, 2013by Mr. Onsare Robert

BY ROBERT OKEMWA ONSARE

 

It has come to our realization thatEngineering students alone cannot propel this country to the aspired height ofinnovation, says Dr Kamau Gachigi, the chairman and coordinator of Science andTechnology Park Steering Committee, University of Nairobi, thus we are scoutingfor creative and innovative minds from across the country to blend with engineeringstudents – to catalyze one another – to transform their knowledge into diverseprojects.

It is with this background that theMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, idea of FabricationLaboratory (fablab) comes into being. As of now fablab is an international networkthat is being domesticated by the University of Nairobi, School of Engineering,to realise a science and technology park. The park is igniting young peopleinnovativeness and creativity in an exciting way, Gachigi explains.

Another MIT fablab is operating inMajiwa at Bondo district, run by ARO Fablab, an NGO, sponsored by Norad Norway.

At MIT, the brain child of fablab -with a mission to muster a combination of passion and inventiveness, on howstudents can make (almost) anything notwithstanding their course of study.”A sculpture student with no background in engineering made a portablepersonal space for screaming that saves them, replaying later. Another made aweb browser that lets parrots navigate the Net,” says Prof NeilGershenfield, a MIT physicist and a computer scientist, who is among chiefproponents of fablab.

Apart from lectures on how to make(almost) anything – that will be shared, transmitted via satellite across the35 countries around the world – where Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa are thefirst beneficiaries in Africa. “The students will access unique equipmentswhich are appropriate and very expensive,” says Gachigi.

The Ministry of Higher Educationwill be providing other necessary materials and facilities as need and timewill command. Aspiring innovators will also benefit from the nationalpublic-private endowment fund to facilitate research in science, technology,and innovation. Yes, Kenya National Council of Science and Technology is out tohelp upcoming scientist to improve on their innovations as well market to theprivate sector through grants to enable them scale prototypes into final marketoriented products.

“For innovative ideas to betranslated to end products, financial back up is essential,” says Prof ShemWandiga, the director for the Centre for Science and Technology Innovation,Kenya, “the Ministry of Higher Education is toying with the idea of scoutinginnate-innovative-talents across the country to nurture them into maturity.”

Wandiga says that Kenya has hadinnovators who drown into the tides of time from lack of motivation,institutional and financial support, their works not patented, and poverty thatcompels them to seek jobs in companies that exploit them with a peanut pay.

Students need to be given access andmeans to solve their contextual problems, inventively, says Gershenfield, thistouches something very, very deep – somehow it goes back to nest-building ormastering their own environment.

There is sort of this deep thinginside that most people don’t express that comes tumbling out when they getaccess to MIT fablab tools,” he says.

 

 

A strong base for sciences andmathematics is very vital to extract great applied scientist, points out ProfJesse Role, chairman, department of technology, University of Eastern Africa,Baraton (UEAB); adding  that creativethinking should be blended in our learning process from primary schools touniversity.

 

 

Prof Role who is an electronicscommunication engineer points out the necessity of indentifying studentsabilities from a tender age thus exposing them in what they are good at both interms of subjects and even toys since innovation is self driven.

 

 

He points out the importance ofrealizing that innovation is self driven by the needs of the people. Hence,identifying the Kenyan needs to be met against the available resources is vital.

 

 

The Kenyan government needs tomagnetize international companies which will in return provide learningequipment to institution of higher learning as they are doing in many countriesacross the world because those who are trained will be absorbed by the samecompanies, the don says.

 

 

He further recommends the Kenyangovernment needs to undertake industrial zoning – that is building industriesclose to relevant training institutions – which will enable students to have afirsthand exposure – which will lead them to question the kind of improvementthey can afford.

 

 

Students need to realize that theirdivergent disciplines of study should not be an hindrance to invention orinnovativeness, says Arsenio Poblete, a mathematics lecture at UEAB, who dubsup as a design artist, innovation is an inner will to create something that canbe an answer to a prevailing problem or coming up with means of improving onexisting device.

The don says that innovation is notcontained in building far reaching projects/devices but “simple” devices thatcan be of help to a given people. “Thus,” Poblete says, “inventors andinnovators are those minds capable of harmonizing a wide range of principles,from vast disciplines; languages, arts, social sciences, mathematics, puresciences, engineering and technology.”

 

 

For Joshua Adegun, a technology donat UEAB says that the greatest tragedy that befalls life of students as theyadvance with their academic pursuit is the fading away of childhood curiosity –the drive to ask, observe, try, and make things with available materials whichis a great ingredients towards invention and innovativeness.

Prof Kaburu M’rubu, the VC of GretsaUniversity, Thika, laments that for long we have been depending on other peopleinnovations which have reduced us to mitumba (second – hand) technologyadaptors, adding: “Innovation can however make us technology donors. And thoughtechnology requires resources, it actually begins in the mind.”

The science and technology park atthe University of Nairobi will design an infrastructure for research ideas,says Gachigi, will be conceptualized, experimented, build to end products inthe school of engineering laboratory, and market the devices. “The rapidprototyping facility will be used as an innovation centre for universitystudents, lecturers and the general public.”

“We are a centre of incubation,”says the mechanical engineering lecture, “we already have more than sevenoperational companies, Tekno International and BWANA Industries, among them,springing out of innovativeness to meet the people’s needs while creating jobopportunities.”

However, African schools have aproblem in focusing so heavily on theory, says Dr Ave Kludze, a Ghana scientistat National Astronautical Science Agency (NASA), whereas they are expected tofocus heavily on practical – solving real problems at the university.

“If we can bring that practicalelement into African schools,” says Kludze, who was a system engineer indeveloping Calipso Satellite that was launched in 2006, “we have a lot ofbrilliant young minds who will benefit.”

The University of Nairobi, MIT fablab, engineering students, have formed a highschool outreach program with a mission of popularizing engineering, encouragingsecondary school students to pursue applied sciences, technology and engineeringas a mean towards Kenya’s vision, to be industrialized by 2030.

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