Who We Are
Why Technology
Why Africa

A Physicist's View Of STEM Education In The US And Africa

Sekazi Mtingwa

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 engineers.
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 the first.

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 long-term success.

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

To read more ISTG Online Publication articles, please click here.

2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)