From STEM to STEAM and proof that the San are well versed in Structural Mechanics By Prof. Edward Chikuni

Professor Chikuni-Botho University

In an article that appeared in the “Patriot on Sunday” (29 September, 2019) we discussed the History of Engineering and pointed out that the invention of the Steam Engine by an African and its further development in Europe changed civilization, for good or for worse, but nevertheless, forever. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and any subjects that fall under these four disciplines.

 The idea started in the USA where it was found that high-tech jobs were difficult to fill because of the lack of competencies that where demonstrated by graduates of STEM degrees / qualifications. A list, and by no means a comprehensive list, of STEM subjects is: Aerospace Engineering, Astronomy, Biochemistry, Biology, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Civil Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical engineering, Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering, Physics, Psychology, Statistics. Although the idea that STEM qualifications were a most desirable thing started in the US, here in Africa we have also embraced it. Embracing STEM, we have, but implementing STEM education is a momentous task for us. It requires a lot of infrastructure and STEM educated human resources. One needs roads and telecommunications, laboratories and of course cash to pay teachers, to maintain equipment and replenish supplies.

It is not surprising that during the Middle Ages, hundreds of years ago, the Catholic Church, which was very rich from paying no taxes and levying tithes had many of its priests engaged in science. Examples are Father Copernicus the astronomer and Bishop Albert of Saxony, who did pioneering work in Mathematics, Physics and Logic. Another early priest-scientist was Father Gerbert d’Aurillac, who perfected a device for making astronomical measurements. He was so clever that he was suspected to have used magic, i.e. “modi” in Setswana, , to become Pope Sylvester II. In later years the Jesuit movement was formed which specialized in teaching and ministering. In the late 1970’s my colleague at the Rural Industries Innovation Centre (RIIC), Kanye, Irish Priest Father McGarry, worked on Biodigesters which generated clean gas from cow-dung. The gas was used in the kitchens of the Seminar Center at RIIC. Father McGarry, an Oxford Graduate, was also a science teacher at Sepapitso Secondary School. From STEM let’s now go to STEAM. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics. The infusion of ART into STEM is in recognition of the fact it is folly to devise, create or produce anything without due regard to the consumer. ART introduces, aspects like the environment, sustainability, philosophy and ethics. STEAM means that we must link Technology with Society. During my short period at RIIC Kanye, there was a research project on using mechanical means to remove the husks or outer skin of sorghum i.e. “dehulling”.

It was funded by the International Research and Development Centre (IDRC) Canada. My Mechanical Engineering colleague, a Swiss Engineer by the name of Ulrich Oeller, was tasked to do the design. He however declined saying he could not work on a machine that removed nutrients from the produce. As a result, I fresh electrical engineering graduate was “tasked” to do the job. I could not understand what the Swiss Engineer was fussing about. I was just too keen to prove that I had enough mathematical knowledge to design the required barrel and knew about enough electrical engineering to design and install the Electric Motor Drive. But my Swiss colleague was right, removing the outer skin of sorghum, made it whiter and softer but was hardly ethical from a nutrition view point. The machine worked and was supplied to the Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board (BAMB). To counter the criticism, it was decided that means be found to put the vitamins back. Thus the Botswana Food Laboratory (now called National Food Technology Research Centre) was born. Now to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The “Patriot on Sunday” article we more or less covered all the industrial revolutions. We in Botswana are in the unique position to witness all these revolutions still intact at the same time. Some friends of ours, involved infrastructure security had a work opportunity on a game reserve compound around Maun. They drove throughout the night to the work location, oblivious of the elephant and lion territory they were traversing. Their client / host realizing what they had just done told them bluntly that the only thing that surpassed their madness was their luck. On their way back a month later, they made sure that they would not face the possibility of being the lions’ diner. They travelled during day light.

Unfortunately, their trailer axle broke. A group of San arrived and offered to help (one of them spoke Setswana). Our friends could not imagine what kind of help would be gotten from what they perceived to be stone-age people, but in their situation, they did not have much choice. What the ancient culture people did were amazing; they twisted some fibres into ropes and tied up the trailer axle in complex knots. After were done, my friends were assured that the trailer was good enough to reach Gaborone (and it did). My friends offered them food and money. These San “Engineers” accepted and ate the food, but declined the money. These San Engineers, obviously knew Structural Mechanics, an Engineering subject dreaded my most University Students but also in not accepting money, they taught us human values or Botho, also called Ubuntu in Zulu or Unhu in the Shona Language of Zimbabwe.

Professor Chikuni is an Energy Expert and Engineering Educator based at Botho University. He can be reached at 

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