There’s a quiet revolution brewing among Penn State students; they’re finding meaning in their studies, changing majors, and developing confidence in their ability to contribute to a greater good. They’re engaged and excited.
What’s driving this excitement? A 2-year-old program in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) called the Alliance for Earth Sciences, Engineering and Development in Africa (AESEDA), which focuses on solving some of Africa’s most pressing problems by engaging students, particularly minority students, in the study of earth sciences.
So what can a bunch of geologists, mining engineers and petroleum engineers do to overcome Africa’s crippling poverty? A lot, says Dr. Michael Adewumi (pictured above), professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering. “Africa is one of the most resource-rich continents on earth,” he says. From vast petroleum fields to the world’s richest gold and diamond mines, Africa has immense natural wealth. So, why is poverty so rampant? What's missing, says Adewumi, is an infrastructure for linking these resources to people's well-being. “When you think about it deeply, what’s missing is the capacity to translate the enormous mineral, oil, and [other] georesource reserves into wealth for the people.”
Understanding the importance of establishing such a link led EMS Dean Eric Barron and a group of faculty to establish AESEDA in 2003 and appoint Adewumi, a native of Nigeria with 20 years teaching experience at Penn State, as the organization's director. Building on existing interest for research in Africa among EMS faculty, AESEDA’s goal is to establish a model for multidisciplinary, multiorganizational and multinational partnerships to develop African georesources for sustainable livelihoods.
To that end, AESEDA initially developed partnerships with African universities in the resource-rich countries of Nigeria and South Africa. Rather than contribute to “brain drain,” AESEDA established an innovative education model that allows the flow of students and faculty back and forth between Africa and Penn State. “Our goal is to begin to influence the new crop of African academics that can then engage with colleagues here to develop long-lived collaborative relationships,” says Adewumi.
Recruiting Minority Students
A second, equally important goal is to encourage minority participation in the earth sciences, with the thought of helping Africans help themselves as a selling point. “When you have a program like ours--focused on Africa, focused on trying to alleviate poverty and utilize the resources for the benefit of the people--a lot of African Americans become interested,” says Adewumi. “That becomes the hook.”
Once students are hooked, Adewumi reels them in by stressing the importance of their participation. Oil and minerals, he shows them, drive the western economies, and students can have a say in how those resources are used. “If minorities are not participating in these segments of the economy, we are missing out,” he says.
The participation of minorities in the earth sciences is extremely small, and AESEDA is helping to increase the number of minorities entering the field by providing networking opportunities. AESEDA counts many of the world’s major resource companies--ExxonMobil, Chevron, Schlumberger, Marathon, and Shell--among its stakeholders, and these companies provide internships for AESEDA students and consider them for jobs upon graduation.
In order for AESEDA to meet its goals, participating students must learn about Africa and gain hands-on experience on the continent. Penn State has developed a number of mechanisms for achieving these aims, such as establishing an undergraduate minor--Science, Society, and the Environment in Africa--and creating a new graduate program, Sustainable Georesource Management, which incorporates an Africa-based internship. Students may also participate in the Summer Research Opportunities Program, which pairs students with faculty mentors and allows them to participate in AESEDA research.
Enlightened partnerships and exchanges with several historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are integral to AESEDA’s goal to increase minority participation in the geosciences; the program engages HBCUs to determine the best way to implement these exchanges so that everyone wins, says Adewumi. “That is the basic idea we are selling, and it has really caught fire with the HBCUs,” he says. “We are equal partners where we decide all these things together.”
HBCU students enrolled in physics or chemistry may spend summers at Penn State. Adewumi hopes that this experience will boost their confidence and increase their comfort with the Penn State environment to the point where they will consider graduate studies, at Penn State or elsewhere
With funding from the National Science Foundation, AESEDA has partnered with Jackson State University in Mississippi to create adegree program in geosciences--the first of its kind offered at an HBCU. Close ties between the two universities will provide Jackson State graduates with opportunities to pursue graduate degrees in earth sciences at Penn State.
A Profound Impact
Participation in these programs is changing students’ lives. “One student who returned from Africa this August said, ‘This has had a profound impact; I will never be the same.’ Now he wants to change his major and do more to continue the African work,” says Adewumi. “Another student said, ‘It has given me a purpose for why I am at Penn State.’ It’s incredible when a white American student says that. I tell myself, ‘Wow! We’re on to something.’ ”
Minority graduate enrollment is increasing. Following a recent summer program, the first African-American student from North Carolina A&T State University is also the first African American to pursue a Master’s degree in mining engineering at Penn State. Two other minority students are pursuing Master’s and doctoral degrees in meteorology. “This program has begun to yield incredible results,” says Adewumi.
“I really believe this program has the chance of changing the demography in terms of minority student participation in the earth sciences,” says Adewumi. It’s a dream come true for him. “We are learning from the Africans. We are engaging together and learning together.” AESEDA has spread far beyond EMS, Nigeria, and South Africa to encompass all but one college at Penn State, over 70 faculty members, over twenty universities and organizations in 5 African countries and 10 HBCUs. In only 2 years the program has become a successful model for international research.
“Look, I really think that what I’m doing right now is the most exciting part of my career, and I just can’t stop talking about it,” says Adewumi. Perhaps the revolution isn’t so quiet after all.
Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at AMSasso@aol.com.