A Physicist's View Of STEM Education In The US And Africa
Sekazi K. Mtingwa received B.S. degrees in physics and mathematics from MIT in 1971 and Master's and Ph.D. degrees
in theoretical high energy physics from Princeton University in 1976. He held postdoctoral positions at the University of Rochester, University of
Maryland, and Fermilab, where he served one year as a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow before becoming a staff scientist. He then joined the staff
at Argonne National Laboratory, before being appointed Professor and Chair of the Physics Department at North Carolina A&T State University. Mtingwa
remained at NCA&T for 13 years before moving to MIT, where he served two years as Visiting Professor of Physics. He then served two years as Visiting
Professor at Harvard University before returning to MIT as Senior Lecturer. While at MIT, he also served as Faculty Director of Academic Programs
in the Office of Minority Education. Currently, he is Principal Partner at Triangle Science, Education & Economic Development, LLC, providing
consulting services to national laboratories, universities, and African governments.
Mtingwa is President of INCREASE, a consortium of
Minority-Serving Institutions that seeks to increase their researchers’ utilization of national laboratory user facilities. In addition to
co-founding the African Laser Centre, Mtingwa chaired the writing of the
|Strategic Plan for South Africa's synchrotron light source user
community. Finally, Mtingwa is co-founder of the National Society of Black Physicists and National Society of Hispanic Physicists.
Q: As a physicist, what would you consider the most critical subject to promote at the high school level in order
to increase the number of people pursuing careers in science?
Mtingwa: The most critical subject is mathematics, since it is the language of science and technology. However, learning mathematics does not
necessarily engender an interest in STEM. To assist with that, I have always encouraged young people to read popular science and technology magazines
written for the layperson. That is what I did during my high school days. Everyday before doing my homework, I would read at least part of an article
from Scientific American. That is what stimulated my interest in physics. Nowadays, there is the Internet, so it is much easier to find out about
almost anything that you can imagine. On can just Google any topic. So, if magazines are not available or too expensive, there is the Web.
Q: If a young person is interested in pursuing a career in physics but finds that they are not dong well in their math courses, should they consider
alternate approaches to reaching their goal or completely alternate career paths?
Mtingwa: There are two approaches that I would consider. The first is the usual course approach. If a student does not do well in the course, then
she or he should just do the best job possible. Then try another approach by taking a real world problem and learning the math necessary to solve it. An
example would be studying the trajectory of a projectile near the surface of the Earth. That would be an excellent method of mastering trigonometry.
The important point is that being a whiz in mathematics is not necessary for an experimentalist. However, in the end, one must be honest with oneself
about one's talents and passions. If physics is not the right fit, then go for some other STEM field. Indeed, there are many.
Q: Having spent several years contributing to the scientific infrastructure development in Africa, such as with the African Laser Science Center, you
probably have acquired a unique perspective on science and engineering education in various countries. What would you say are the similarities and
differences pertaining to the challenges of STEM education promotion and access in those African countries that you have had experience with in
comparison to the US?
Mtingwa: I think that the US and Africa have the same list of challenges. The only difference is the magnitude of each. Perhaps the most
important is the lack of adequate financial resources. Although the US has led the world in many STEM fields since World War II, its prominence is
diving fast, due to the budget problems in the Federal government. As an example, I do research in accelerator and high energy physics. With the
decommissioning of the Tevatron at Fermilab, and the recent discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, the US has ceded its
leadership in high energy physics to Europe. Even the next big high energy physics project, the International Linear Collider, will probably be
constructed in Japan with US support. ITER, the large-scale instrument that aims to demonstrate that it is possible to produce commercial energy from
nuclear fusion, is being built in France with US involvement. Such large infrastructures are needed to educate the next generation of scientists and
Although we have our financial problems in the US, African countries have far fewer financial resources. The demand on the governments to address
the most basic human needs takes precedence over investments in STEM research and education. There is a failure to recognize that investments in STEM
education and research and development now will greatly mitigate future problems. However, selling that idea to the governments has been extremely
difficult. The exciting thing about the African Laser Centre, which celebrates its tenth anniversary in November 2013, is that South Africa made a
commitment to invest heavily in laser-driven research and training. It is a network of approximately 35 laser labs around Africa, and it awards
research grants, student scholarships, and hosts a variety of laser training workshops and conferences. The ALC's biggest challenge is getting other
African governments to contribute to its programs. Fortunately, a number of countries have begun to invest in the programs, with Namibia being one of
Q: What would be your solutions to remedy to these obstacles?
Mtingwa: The solution to properly managing scarce resources is simple. African countries need to take a look at the percentage of gross domestic
product that rapidly developing countries like India are spending on STEM research and education, and then emulate it. This is the most direct path to
Q: Are there any lessons about promoting and increasing access to STEM education that the US could learn from Africa or vice versa?
Mtingwa: South Africa has done an impressive job of providing support for STEM research and education. Its latest big push has been into
astronomy, where it won an international competition to construct a network of radio telescope called the Square Kilometre Array. The SKA will be the
world's largest telescope, with antennas to be constructed along thousands of kilometres in South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar,
Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. It plans to be operational by 2020. The exciting thing is that the South African government is pushing
this project with all deliberate speed. Certainly the SKA will boost science education in South Africa. Exciting breakthroughs in astronomy will
seduce many youngsters to pursue STEM careers. I don't see this level of excitement by the US government for any big project.
On the flip side of the coin, African countries should study how the US became such a dominant force in STEM fields before the start of its recent
decline. There must be many lessons that could be learned and implemented in Africa, with STEM education being a key element.
Q: What inspired you to choose your career path?
Mtingwa: I was born Michael Von Sawyer. When I was in elementary school, my friends used to tease me about being the mad German scientist called
Von Sawyer. I think that that stuck with me and sparked my interest in science. Reading Scientific American magazine from my early high school days
must have stimulated my interest in physics in particular, although during high school, I pursued a science project in biology. I studied the
possibility of human space travel in a closed system, wherein astronauts would eat green algae and breathe oxygen emitted by the algae, while the
algae would consume human wastes and use the carbon dioxide from the astronauts for photosynthesis. In the first year that the State of Georgia
integrated its Annual Science Fair, I won first place in biology. That was one of my most memorable experiences.
Q: What challenges did you face and overcome?
Mtingwa: As a youngster going through grade school and high school, I never felt that I had to overcome anything. My mother in particular was
proud of my working so hard and did all that she could to support me. The real forces of racism hit after college and I have had to fight really hard
for appointments and maintaining a presence in my fields of accelerator, high energy and nuclear physics.
Q: What career accomplishments are you most proud of in your life?
Mtingwa: There is a paper that I wrote with James Bjorken, currently a retired Professor of Physics at Stanford University, on the topic of
intrabeam scattering for accelerator beams. Since all the particles in proton or electron accelerators have the same electric charge, they repel each
other and thus there is a tendency for the beams to spread as they travel around the accelerators. This is an unwanted effect, since you want the beams
to be tightly focused, so that when they scatter off one another, the number of particle collisions is maximized. We derived the theory of intrabeam
scattering in great detail for modern particle accelerators. Our work has become a classic in accelerator physics and one of the highest referenced
papers in the field.
Another project that I am proud of is constructing the Antiproton Source at Fermilab. Its Tevatron Collider used counter-rotating beams of protons and
antiprotons for collisions. There are not enough antiprotons in nature to form intense beams; thus, they must be created. At Fermilab, we collided
proton beams into targets to generate a lot of debris, a small portion of which were antiprotons. After each beam-target collision, a small number of
antiprotons were sent to an accumulator ring until enough were collected to send back out to the Tevatron to collide with protons. I was on the teams
that built the beam stochastic cooling systems, which shrank the antiproton beam sizes, and the magnet system that guided and focused the antiprotons
while being collected. These systems were essential parts of the Antiproton Source complex, which led to the discovery of the last quark to be
discovered, the top quark.
*Dr. Sekazi Mtingwa is a member of the ISTG Advisory Board
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