Plain text version:
Think of Africa and what images spring to mind? Starvation and poverty? Subsistence farming and political corruption? Violence and war? Few would realise it’s a hotbed of scientific genius and mathematical prowess.
Young Africans were once exceptionally lucky to receive a basic education, and far too many are still left out of the loop. Those that are able to pursue an academic path often disappear to Europe or North America, leaving their continent as intellectually impoverished as it’s ever been.
Now, thanks to the vision of a Cambridge Professor and the generosity of a little known international group, all this is about to undergo a dramatic change for the better.
For over twenty years a group of some of the most powerful people on the planet has shaped and changes our lives and the lifestyles we follow.
This is no semi-mythical group nor is it a gathering of the rich or the powerful. Its proceedings are in the public domain and videos of its proceedings are freely available under the Creative Commons Licence.
This is TED.
Once every year attendees gather from the worlds of Technology, Entertainment and Design. In four days, over 50 speakers are allocated one 18 minute slot each to showcase the latest innovation and theories in their particular field.
This allows the world’s leading creative minds to sit in a refreshing mental spa, connect the dots and create solutions whose beneficial impact is far beyond what a single individual could achieve.
As the group’s website states:
“It works because all of knowledge is connected. Every so often it makes sense to emerge from the trenches we dig for a living, and ascend to a 30,000-foot view, where we see, to our astonishment, an intricately interconnected whole.”
Every year, TED awards three prizes in order to help “One Wish to Change the World” come true. This includes a financial grant of $100,000 but most important focuses the combined creativity of the Conference upon specific goals for the forthcoming year.
One of the 2008 TED Prize winners was Neil Turok, the Cambridge University Chair of Mathematical Physics, and his desire to “Celebrate an African Einstein”.
His plan is to take the African Institute for Mathematical Studies (AIMS) and expand it to form an all embracing pan-African approach to the education of the brightest scientific minds that the continent has to offer.
The Institute itself is already a great achievement. Founded in 2003 in Cape Town, South Africa, it is connected to 22 other countries across Africa through a network of leading mathematicians and scientists.
This network enables that the best students get taught by the most appropriate lecturers through co-ordination and co-operation with one another.
Turok’s New Einstien project seeks to expand the work of AIMS from the academic hothouse of Cape Town and spread if far and wide across the whole of Africa.
Recently a new AIMS centre was opened in Abuja, Nigeria. Other centres are being explored in Botswana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda.
Each centre will specialise in a particular area of science or mathematics and is anticipated to hold around 50 students. After studying at the AIMS centre students will probably go on to study masters and doctorates at a partnering university.
A large number of students gave inspirational presentations at the launch of the New Einstein project, outlining how they came to be studying at AIMS and what their vision of the future is.
These presentations simply scratched the surface of the potential being unleashed in Africa. Fifteen of them can be found on YouTube and they include:
Issa Karambal, whose family, fled the civil war in Chad when he was a child. He started his education in Tunisia only to have it curtailed when his family was forced to return to Chad.
A friend gave him an AIMS application form and he is now studying a Masters Degree in Relativity. Once complete his ambition is to return to Chad as the country’s specialist in this field, to teach and spread the knowledge he has gained.
Kentia Tonleu Klebert, from Cameroon, was fortunate enough to be spotted in primary school. He entered secondary school three years early and went on to develop a passion for mathematics before studying it at university.
At AIMS he is taking this enthusiasm further by studying a PhD in mathematical finance. His ambition is to return to Cameroon and develop a home grown financial services capability. At present, most of the industry is foreign controlled.
Doreen Mbabazi, from Uganda, overcame family bereavement and financial hardship during her education. Then she was barred by her government from pursuing her love of medicine and so settled for mathematics instead.
Now she is combining this education and passion at AIMS by following a course in mathematical epidemiology. She hopes to return to Uganda to inform government policy on HIV/AIDS and stimulate research into the epidemic across the whole of Africa.
Laure Gouba, from Burkina Faso, is Head Tutor at AIMS and holds a doctorate in theoretical physics. With a strong desire to spread education, she returned from her European studies to lead a programme advancing education among women in her home country.
One day she visited AIMS and was so moved by the institution’s Pan-African drive to share knowledge that she applied there and then to become a teaching assistant. Two years later she is Head Tutor with the love and ambition to help grow the project still further.
The cost of the New Einstein project isn’t cheap, but it is certainly achievable. Each centre’s price tag is estimated at $10m, which is less than one tenth of one percent of the aid Africa currently receives.
Similarly a bursary for an individual student is estimated at $10,000, but this is only a fifth of the cost of sending an African student to university in Europe or North America.
Recognising the simple common sense of the venture many companies are already stepping forward to pledge their support.
Barclays, over a third of whose employees work in Africa, will sponsor 20 students. Other global organisations, such as Price Waterhouse Coopers, Nokia, Anglo American and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics have also pledged their support.
The impact that the project will have will, in one sweep, change the face of Africa and African academia forever.
No longer will the brightest students disappear to Europe and North America, never to be seen again. Now they will have the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of education without having to leave their birthright behind.
As this home grown talent takes root the entire education system will start to flourish like a vine bursting into flower, enhancing teaching and learning across all social classes and throughout the continent.
And because the AIMS centres are internationally distributed in a self-supporting network, some of the borders arbitrarily drawn by ignorant colonialists may start to fall away in favour of an international union based upon academic excellence and achievement.
The process will create an intercontinental two way dialogue. Not only will more African students be able to become versed in traditional Mathematics and Science, but their own unique outlook will come to influence the future of these disciplines, revealing insights and revelation as never before.
As Steven Hawking has so eloquently observed:
“Not only will this be vital for Africa, I believe it will be important for the future of science because science needs Africa’s talents. I am keenly looking forward to meeting prospective young Einsteins from Africa.”
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