Math Professor Promotes STEM, Establishes Curriculum in African University

Posted: October 10, 2011 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: October 8, 2011 at 6:46 am

By Dave Andrews

Padhu Seshaiyer

Padhu Seshaiyer. Creative Services photo

Educational opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa have long lagged behind most other regions of the world. However, a newfound prioritization of education throughout the continent aims to bring an end to this “knowledge deficit.”

The Nelson Mandela Institution recently developed the African Institute of Science and Technology (AIST) to create a university system to train skilled engineers, technicians and mathematicians. The system is raising the level of education in Africa by bringing new facilities and faculty to a region in critical need of an educational boost.

Last month, Mason mathematician Padhu Seshaiyer was selected by the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering and the International Mathematics Union to travel to Africa as part of the Volunteer Lecturer Program. The program sends scientists and researchers to underdeveloped countries to present intensive monthlong courses at local universities.

Seshaiyer arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, with few details about the goals for his visit beyond helping to build momentum for the AIST program and speaking to students about the importance of math within the fields of science and engineering.

“This type of collaboration has great potential for our students and faculty to engage in exciting opportunities that support Mason’s initiatives on global STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education,” says Seshaiyer, who is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

Switching Gears

He soon realized that he was the very first visiting professor to lecture at the AIST-Arusha campus and that his focus would not be so much on motivating the students, but rather on educating the faculty. Many of the instructors were in their first year of teaching and needed additional guidance in building their curriculum.

“I was extremely impressed by the AIST faculty’s vision to educate the next generation of African scientists and engineers in an effort to eliminate major problems in Africa such as poverty, disease and a struggling economy,” Seshaiyer says.

Seshaiyer helped the new faculty realize there was a need for two new graduate classes. Then he walked the faculty through the process of developing the courses. He went even further by creating complete course packets, which included detailed syllabi that listed daily assignments of class work, homework and other projects. He also provided the new faculty with PowerPoint presentations, directed them to useful websites and even wrote a 130-page instructor’s guide to help the faculty deliver the lessons more effectively.

“It was an exciting trip, and I am confident this is going to build a valuable partnership bridging two prominent institutions on separate continents,” Seshaiyer says. “I am happy to have been selected for this outstanding opportunity to train and develop the next generation of African scientists and engineers while also bringing recognition to Mason.”

Engaging, Inspiring Younger Students

Seshaiyer engaged African students with examples of fun and practical math applications. Photo courtesy of Padhu Seshaiyer

Making the most out of the long journey to Tanzania, Seshaiyer also visited three secondary schools, as well as a primary school, lecturing to more than 700 students on the importance of mathematics and its various applications. He kept the students engaged with problem-solving and critical-thinking exercises to show them examples of fun and practical math applications.

Seshaiyer says he plans to continue working with these schools to establish after-school math clubs. He also hopes to strengthen the connections between the students and the faculty at AIST-Arusha to keep the students motivated to pursue careers in math, science or engineering.

“I am most grateful for [Seshaiyer’s] invaluable contributions in the development of the academic infrastructure of AIST-Arusha, the development of detailed teaching materials and his coaching of our staff on the delivery of the various courses,” says Burton L.M. Mwamila, vice chancellor of AIST-Arusha. “I am even more grateful for his willingness to be among the pioneers of AIST. The memory of his stay and interaction with us is greatly cherished.”

On Seshaiyer’s last day in Arusha, he was honored by Mwamila with the offer of an official affiliate professorship with AIST-Arusha.

“We feel greatly honored by his stay with us, and I am happy to note that he is part of the AIST family,” Mwamila says.

 

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu