ASU professor helps elevate engineering education in Africa

Terry Alford in Africa

Africa is rich in natural resources but significantly lacking in educational resources. That deficiency is making it difficult for the continent to benefit from what its natural bounty – especially vast troves of valuable minerals – could do to boost economic development and quality of life.

Arizona State University engineer Terry Alford has been working with colleagues to help remedy the situation by bringing advanced training in materials science and engineering to African universities and technology centers.

Alford is a professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. His connection with Africa developed in the late 1990s after one of his doctoral students who had come to ASU from the University of Western Cape in South Africa returned there to become head of the physics department. Alford later accepted his former student’s invitation to spend some time teaching at Western Cape.

On one of his visits there he met Winston Soboyejo, a Princeton University mechanical and aerospace engineering professor and a native of Nigeria.  Soboyejo introduced Alford to additional opportunities to teach in Africa under the auspices of the Africa Materials Research Society. In the roughly 15 years since then, Alford has traveled to Africa about a dozen times to consult with education leaders and teach two-week engineering instruction sessions at various schools and universities.

Roadblocks to progress

Alford has also sent one of his ASU post-doctoral assistants and a graduate student to the University of Western Cape to assist in building a materials processing laboratory, and has brought Western Cape students to ASU to get research experience and benefit from ASU’s state-of-the-art materials characterization tools used to probe the fundamental internal structures and properties of materials.

Last spring, on his most recent trip, Alford taught at the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja, Nigeria. He plans to return there to teach another short course in the near future.

His experiences in Africa have shown him how the poor quality of school facilities hampers economic and social progress. “Some of the students are brilliant but they don’t reach their full potential because they do not have access to modern educational resources,” Alford says.

During his visits, he’s also been confronted by some of the same difficulties faced by African students. He recalls staying in a village and trying to work on courses he was teaching “while being without electricity and without fresh water about half the time.”

It’s been at such times, Alford recalls, that his African students showed their appreciation for his efforts by doing whatever they could to keep him comfortable. “I was humbled and honored that these students cared about my well-being,” he says.

Materials and modernization

Alford’s expertise is in materials that can be used for electronics. He studies the properties and behaviors of such materials to reveal the most effective ways to process them for technological applications.

For example, he does research for ASU’s MacroTechnology Works, which is pursuing advances in flexible technologies. Engineers and scientists at the center are laying the ground work for the next-generations of electronic devices that are not only more portable and durable but also can be rolled up or folded, or are otherwise bendable.

Alford is experimenting with the kinds of materials that promise to enable such flexibility and resiliency.

The knowledge and experience he brings to such work is what students in African education institutions must be able to attain if African countries are to use their mineral-rich environment to maximum advantage.

They must produce researchers with a higher level of education to ensure they have the expertise to make productive use of their natural resources while at the same time protecting their environment, Alford says.

“That’s what will help them modernize their civilization,” he adds.

Alford hopes to accelerate that educational progress by eventually making ASU’s graduate-level engineering and science courses available to students in Africa through the Internet.

He also wants to interest fellow ASU faculty members in following in his footsteps and traveling to Africa to share their expertise with teachers and students.

Written by Joe Kullman and Natalie Pierce