African-American connection to attract Earth sciences students


Prospects for new Earth scientists are dim because minority students are not choosing science careers, according to a Penn State researcher. Aimed at attracting this growing population, Penn State's AESEDA program combines U.S. initiatives with activities in Africa.

"Today's high schools are about 38 percent minorities," says Dr. Michael A. Adewumi, professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering and director of Penn State's Alliance for Earth Sciences, Engineering and Development in Africa (AESEDA). "Fewer and fewer students, in general, are going into these disciplines. Participation of minorities in Earth sciences is extremely small. For example, in 20 years, we have not had one African-American graduate with master's or Ph.D. in petroleum and natural gas engineering. The story is the same for all CIC schools."

The Committee on Institutional Cooperation is the Big Ten's academic counterpart. AESEDA is a new initiative by Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences to entice minority students to enroll and to aid in development of natural resources and energy management in Africa.

"We have a Penn State seed grant for a pipeline program to encourage more minority K-12 students into summer programs," says Adewumi. "Another partnership is with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), to entice them to continue their educations here after graduation."

These programs, funded by a pilot grant from the National Science Foundation, allows students to enroll in an HBCU in physics or chemistry and spend summers at Penn State's University Park campus. The intent is for students to complete their undergraduate degree in three years and feel comfortable enough with Penn State to enroll for a master's degree. Penn State and the particular HBCU will jointly administer this program.

AESEDA is also working with Jackson State University in Mississippi to expand its bachelor's degree in Earth sciences as a pipeline to graduate degrees at Penn State.

"Currently, two students who participated in a summer pilot program are enrolled in master's programs here at the university one in meteorology and one in mining engineering," says AESEDA.

However, what makes AESEDA and Penn State different from other universities is the Africa connection. A series of projects in the Earth sciences can serve as an added attraction for African-American students.

"The exciting thing about this program for African American students is the connection to Africa," says Adewumi. "The possibility to do something good for Africa and to travel to Africa and see for themselves that they can make a difference."

AESEDA is currently looking at a variety of projects in Nigeria, the sixth largest supplier of oil to the United States, and the third largest, if combined with Angola and Equatorial Guinea. It is a country with rich resources and endemic poverty, which would benefit greatly from stability.

Penn State is currently working with the Nigerian University Commission to do a comprehensive assessment of the various Earth science programs in one university from each of the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria.

"Nigeria was a British colony and the curricula are old, not up to date," says Adewumi.

Ten faculty members from Penn State will spend two weeks evaluating faculty, curricula, laboratories and courses, in the same way they would evaluate U.S. institutions. Eventually, AESEDA would like to build up these programs with local scholars to replace the soon-to-retire faculty members who are mostly in their 50s.

"They need a new cadre of faculty, but if we bring people here to Penn State to train them, the chances of them returning to Nigeria are small," says Adewumi.

The researchers are proposing a sandwich program. African students would be considered faculty in training and would come to the U.S. for a maximum of one year of study to complete regular classes for their Ph.D. After their exams, they would return to their home institution, teach undergraduates and work on their Nigerian-based research, eventually receiving a doctorate from Penn State.

"The nicest part is that they will not be uprooted and will be working on local problems in Nigeria," says Adewumi.

In partnership with Chevron/Texaco, AESEDA is beginning a similar project in the Niger Delta, one of the poorest areas in the country, but one of the richest in oil. The oil company wants to stabilize the area, which is prone to riots and hostage taking, and also produce homegrown technical workers for the oil industry. They have adopted two disciplines, petroleum engineering and geosciences, and asked AESEDA to evaluate the program, help design a curriculum and train faculty.

In the same region, Chevron Texaco has asked AESEDA to investigate the possibility of converting Abobiri Farm, a long fallow, government-owned, cooperative farm into an experimental agricultural facility. The aim is to train young people -- 70 percent of the population is under age 20 with no prospect of jobs and to promote improved and sustainable agriculture and entrepreneurship.

"With a population in excess of 130 million, there are markets for the farm products in Nigeria," says Adewumi. "Eventually we hope those trained on the farm will go to other places and begin agricultural projects of their own."

In South Africa, AESEDA members are working with the University of Witwatersrand to improve the training of geophysicists. Building the program in South Africa will attract students from other African countries to be trained and return home. The National Science Foundation is supporting this effort to revitalize the South African program.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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