We Need More Scientists and Engineers: Interview with Dr. Kimani Toussaint Jr., co-Founder of ISTG

Earlier this week, I spoke with Dr. Kimani Toussaint Jr., co-founder of  ISTG, a nonprofit organization which has the mission to bring science and technology education to the group of populations which are currently under-represented in the global landscape of science and technology, both in the United States and Africa.

Dr. Toussaint holds a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering from Boston University. In 2006, he was one of 100 top American scientists in the United States (under 45) to be selected for the National Academy of Science’s 18th Annual Kavli Frontiers of Science Symposium.

In this Interview Dr. Toussaint shared his passion for science and technology, and above all his deep commitment and dedication to the cause of bringing science and technology education to the under-represented. I love talking to Dr. Toussaint, and deeply share the cause he is serving.

SiliconAfrica (SA): Good Morning, Dr. Toussaint. Do you have some hard number to back how under-represented are, for example, African-Americans and Africa in general in Science and technology?

Dr. Kimani Toussaint Jr.

Good morning Mr. Koutonin. In response to the question, please allow me to first establish the context of the problem. First, with regards to the U.S, last November the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report called “Transformation and opportunity: the future of the U.S. research enterprise.”

The report makes recommendations on steps the Federal Government should take to turn around the serious challenge to American scientific and technological innovation that has transformed every sector of our lives. Among its essential recommendations are for undergraduate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education to improve through various potential mechanisms, which are outlined in the February 2012 PCAST report “Engage to Excel”.

According to this latter report, the demand for STEM jobs in the U.S. alone will translate to something on the order of 1 million new jobs by 2018, with approximately 92% of those jobs requiring some college-level education and training in a STEM field. Now this should make it clear how important science and technology is to our nation. Still, when you look at the numbers, certain demographics in our population are grossly underrepresented in STEM fields, e.g., African Americans, Latinos, and women, in general.

North Grand High School Student – Chicago, IL – AFARA Fall 2010. Copyright © 2009-2013 ISTG. All Rights Reserved.
North Grand High School Student – Chicago, IL – AFARA Fall 2010. Copyright © 2009-2013 ISTG. All Rights Reserved


For example, the National Center for Education Statistics has pointed out that, according to data taken toward the end of the last decade, African Americans accounted for only 2% of PhDs in STEM fields. That’s an alarmingly low number considering African Americans comprise approximately 12% of the U.S. population.

Next, with regards to the African continent, the number of Africans in STEM fields varies per country and must be evaluated through different metrics relating to infrastructural issues. For example, according to a 2012 UNESCO report, approximately 1 million Ghanaian children between 6-14 years of age are out of school even though the Ghanaian economy continues to expand at a rate of approximately 6% per year. That’s potentially 1 million future scientists and engineers that the future could be deprived of.

Statistics obtained by the Human Sciences Research Council indicate that the number of engineers per million of population in South Africa, which hosted the 2010 World Cup, was approximately 473 in comparison to 3,306 per million of population in Japan, which co-hosted the 2002 World Cup. Although the numbers are improving, the number of black engineering graduates in 2005 in South Africa was 24.7%.

An interesting metric used by the World Bank is the number of technicians in R&D per million people. With regards to this, as examples, South Africa and Kenya’s numbers in 2007 were approximately 124 and 63 per million people. This is in comparison to 861 per million people in the United Kingdom that same year. While in terms of the number of Scientific and Technical Journal Articles produced by Nigeria and Ghana in 2009, another World Bank metric, the numbers were 462 and 102, respectively, compared to the approximate 208,000 produced by the U.S. in the same year.

Thus, according to the various ways you can look at it, Africa, specifically, and the world, in general, needs more scientists and engineers, and entire populations are seriously underrepresented in this landscape. This is crippling to humanity as a whole since it affects, among other things, the economic and health infrastructure of a nation.

SA: How did this project get started? What motivates you to work with ISTG?

The first edition of Project AFARA was in 2009, it included students from Perspectives Calumet Middle School (Chicago, Illinois) and Kayamandi High School in Stellenbosch (South Africa). The motivation behind Project AFARA lies in ISTG’s essential goal to provide high quality and low-cost supplemental school programming in science and technology to primarily low income African-American and Latino students, while providing the same educational opportunity to African students. Additionally, Project AFARA is also intended as a cultural bridge for students from different parts of the world, in fact, the word AFARA – actually means “bridge” in Yoruba. Indeed, instilling global awareness and cooperation amongst middle and high school students from diverse backgrounds and countries is also a major objective of Project AFARA.

Perspectives Calumet Middle School Students – Chicago, IL – AFARA Fall 2009. Copyright © 2009-2013 ISTG. All Rights Reserved.
Perspectives Calumet Middle School Students – Chicago, IL – AFARA Fall 2009. Copyright © 2009-2013 ISTG. All Rights Reserved.


SA:  What are the main projects and activities of ISTG?

ISTG has created a number of unique, STEM education-centric programs targeted towards underrepresented students in the US, Africa and the rest of the world, as well as established partnerships with other organizations who share ISTG’s grand vision and goals. These programs and activities include:

• Project AFARA – a month-long program where groups of young US and international (primarily African) students jointly participate in a uniquely designed science project centered around the study and analysis of their respective environments, including learning how various factors can adversely affect the delicate ecosystems within their environment.  Ultimately, the primary goal of Project AFARA  is to enable these young students that are underrepresented in the sciences to be more competitive in an increasingly technological and interconnected world, in effect bridging the scientific and technological educational gap among all students on a local and global scale.

• Project UJAMAA – a unique month-long international high school technology and business initiative. UJAMAA means “work together” or “cooperative economics” in Swahili, and it is in this spirit that ISTG created a project centered on technological business applications. During this project, US and international (primarily African) students will work together to study the viability of commercial technologies. Throughout this project, students will be introduced to new concepts in technology, economics, manufacturing and marketing, and will study how all these disciplines are inter-related.

• Project Africa Tomorrow – the principal objective of this project is to develop a U.S.- sponsored African-based program geared towards the advancement of scientific research and development within African educational institutions, specifically colleges and universities. The project brings together US and African scientists to develop enabling technologies that would radically improve the infrastructure of sub-Saharan Africa.

• Partnership with UAEF – ISTG recently established a partnership with the Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization United African Educational Foundation (UAEF), a charitable organization with the aim of directly addressing the educational needs and aspirations of school children of African descent in the United States and other parts of the world.  Under this partnership, ISTG functions as a distributor for UAEF’s unique children’s books, thereby providing UAEF with a potentially wider audience for its books.  In return, proceeds from the book sales are shared between the two organizations, enabling greater expansion of ISTG’s various educational programs.

SA: Last year, in February 2012, you have ran the AFARA project with Kalanso School in Bamako (Mali). The same project has been ran with 2 other schools at Christ’s School Senior in Ado-Ekiti (Nigeria), and at Kayamandi High School in Stellenbosch (South Africa). How does a typical AFARA project get started in a school? What exactly happens during the period of the project?

Typically, African and US schools interested in participating in Project AFARA contact ISTG directly via its website. The usual duration of Project AFARA is 4 weeks. During that time, students from different part of the world (namely the US and Africa) work together on a common environmental science project, conduct various experiments, exchange data, write reports, create presentations and present their findings.

Without a doubt, Project AFARA is extremely rigorous and completely hand-on. It is not unusual for more than two schools to participate in Project AFARA at the same time; such was the case during the Spring 2012 edition of Project AFARA where three schools participated: Kalanso School (Bamako, Mali), Environmental Charter High School (California, USA), and Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School (New York, USA).

Christ School Students – Ado Ekiti, Nigeria – AFARA Fall 2010 Copyright © 2009-2013 ISTG. All Rights Reserved
Christ School Students – Ado Ekiti, Nigeria – AFARA Fall 2010 Copyright © 2009-2013 ISTG. All Rights Reserved


SA: Are you satisfied with the results you’ve got so far with AFARA projects in Africa? What do you expect to happen after a project is completed?

We are very excited with the progress and results Project AFARA has made in both Africa as well as the US. Thus far, the level of enthusiasm, engagement and satisfaction from participating students and teachers has been overwhelming, and as a result Project AFARA has been experiencing an exponential growth in demand.

The impact of Project AFARA on the consolidation of learning through application has been palpable and greatly appreciated by students, teachers and parents alike. Using our own internal metrics, namely through end of project surveys, we are able to effectively gauge the success of AFARA.

This feedback is crucial for project improvement and modifications. It is also important for us to determine whether or not we as an organization have achieved our primary goals: to not only provide a unique and high quality science program, but also facilitate a cultural exchange amongst students from different regions of the world.

We sincerely hope that after this 4-week project, many of the participating students would continue to keep in touch with their international counterparts. Additionally, our aim is that Project AFARA sparks an interest in science and technology for many students who might have not otherwise shown interest in science prior to Project AFARA. Ultimately, our hope is that this spark will lead more students towards the path of higher education and STEM-centric careers.

SA: What are the main challenges you face with science and technology education in Africa?

While trying not to paint too broad a stroke, I would say that the primary challenge is the lack of adequate resources to carry out many of the hands-on basic science experiments that we take for granted in our high-schools and universities here in the U.S. We’re coming to the realization in the U.S. that a technical education is incomplete without serious integration with hands-on experiments.

It provides a form of empirical learning that is critical. To a large extent, the ubiquity of cell phone technology and increasing access to the internet in Africa has changed the equation radically. Just take a look at how mobile banking accounts for a large percentage of financial transactions in Kenya.

Still, something as simple as the lack of constant electricity and running water in most African countries creates an unfortunate obstacle to this endeavor. It is a real bottleneck. This is why it is so important that African leaders focus their energies on addressing critical infrastructure needs in their respective countries.

SA: You are a professor at the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering of the University of Illinois. What is your personal background, and how do you explain your extraordinary career?

Dr. Toussaint: I attended Overbrook high school, which is an inner city public school in Philadelphia. I faced many of the same challenges that other kids in urban environments faced during that time in the nineties. Today times are much harder for kids, especially those growing up in urban areas. The success that I’ve had with my career can be attributed to a lot of hard work,confidence, as well as constant support from family, friends, and mentors over the years.

SA: What is the current status of science and technology education and scientific achievements in Africa? Are you seeing some signs of progress?

The question is quite broad, but I addressed it mostly in my earlier answers. To re-iterate, education in STEM areas is improving and increasing across Africa, in some countries much more than others. However, it still falls behind many developed nations in this regard because of issues pertaining to infrastructure. Signs of progress are evident, and I think this is especially in large part due to the ubiquity of mobile technology and the internet.

SA: What is the current roadmap of ISTG regarding Africa? Do you have new initiatives? Do you need help or contributions from SiliconAfrica audience?

In the short term, our goal is to expand Project AFARA to more US cities and African countries, as well as to extend this one of a kind opportunity to other underserved students in Europe and Asia, in order to make this project a truly global experience for all participants. We are also looking forward to the expansion of Project UJAMAA as well as the launch of Project Africa Tomorrow.

We strongly believe that all these ISTG initiatives working in concert will foster ISTG’s mission of promoting science and technology throughout urban communities in the US and throughout the whole African continent.

Moreover, consistent with its mission, ISTG also looks forward to distribute UEAF’s children’s books of African fables and talesto US schools which are designed to provide students with culturally relevant and novel books that are challenging yet engaging reading. In addition, ISTG is highly enthusiastic in making these books available to parents eager to provide high quality books to their children.

In general, it is fair to state that ISTG is engaged in a continuous process of developing new projects centered around science, technology, and culture for middle and high schools.  As a result, new projects and initiatives are constantly in the pipeline set to be released at any time.

Finally, in terms of contribution and assistance from the SiliconAfrica audience, ISTG realizes that contributions come in different forms and welcomes support of all kinds. In that regards, as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, a part of ISTG’s funding depends on financial support from partners such as individuals and organizations that share its common beliefs and goals.

Individuals and organizations who want to support ISTG and its various projects, such as Project AFARA, are encouraged to visit our website to learn about donation options or partnering with ISTG. Schools interested in participating in our programs are invited to visit and contact us through our website as well – http://www.istg-africatomorrow.com/

SA: As a Science and Technology evangelist, what are your joys? What are the challenges?

I think that evangelist might be too strong a word. I just really enjoy science in general and all the new technology and gadgets that seem to pop up every minute. I think that at one point in time we all were that way. As far as I can remember, it is the reason why I chose to go into engineering.

Ultimately, you find that with all the new discoveries there is a lot of hard work and often even decades of work that goes into it.

What advice will you give to young people who want to study science and have a career?

Do not be deterred by the apparent difficulty or the abrasive personalities that you can sometimes find. Study science because you are curious about the things around you and the world that we live in. Really young kids seem to do this quite naturally, but as we get older we quickly get put off by the math or a particular professor.

Perhaps now more than any other time in history both science and math literacy are crucial to being able to excel in this world. It forms the axis by which our world turns. In the same way that being able to read and write is really not optional, I anticipate that eventually everyone will need to become more scientifically literate.

Therefore, I would like to encourage all the young people to continue to stick with learning about science and technology until they find a niche that they are really passionate about. Finally, like with anything that you really like to do, you should find venues outside of a classroom to have regular conversations about science, much like you would do with sports or movies. This way, it is not a chore and you’re more likely to stick with it.

How could our readers get in contact with you?

I can be reached at toussaint@istg-africatomorrow.com

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About Mawuna KOUTONIN

Mawuna Koutonin is a world peace activist who relentlessly works to empower people to express their full potential and pursue their dreams, regardless of their background. He is the Editior of SiliconAfrica.com, Founder of Goodbuzz.net, and Social activist for Africa Renaissance. Koutonin’s ultimate dream is to open a world-class human potential development school in Africa in 2017. If you are interested in learning more about this venture or Koutonin’s other projects, you can reach him directly by emailing at mk@linkcrafter.com.

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