Effort to Rebuild Liberia’s Universities Underway


Summer Start students building a model bridge.

An $18.5-million effort to help rebuild Liberia's universities and infrastructure after 15 years of civil war has begun, and University of Michigan professors, staff and students are playing an important role. Through visiting professorships, graduate student fellowships, summer programs for Liberian youth and other endeavors, members of the U-M community are contributing to the revitalization of the nation founded by freed American slaves.

The program, Excellence in Higher Education for Liberian Development, is led by North Carolina-based research institute RTI International. The U.S. Agency for International Development is funding the project that will develop centers of excellence in engineering and agriculture at the University of Liberia and Cuttington University, respectively. The aim is to supply these fields with skilled graduates qualified to meet current and future workforce demand. “Engineering, science and technology are what propels countries into economic greatness and improves quality of life for their residents,” said Herbert Winful, a professor in the U-M Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science who is U-M's principal investigator on this project. “Much depends on having a scientifically and technically trained populace, and through this project we're doing a small part to enable that in Liberia.”

The work began in summer 2011, when three U-M graduate students spent the month of August at Cuttington University running a “Summer Start” program for seventy incoming college freshman and sophomores.  The aim is to build students’ excitement about their chosen career and enhance their preparation through classes in key academic subjects and hands-on experiences.  In fact the “application lab,” where students had to design and build a bridge out of popsicle sticks and construct a catapult, was a welcome challenge for the Liberian students, who previously had had little opportunity to engage in hands-on activities or group-work.

“The students’ lack of technology and computer skills were definitely our biggest surprise,” admits Sara Rimer, a graduate student in Civil and Environmental Engineering.  “Fifty of the seventy students had never touched a computer before the beginning of the program, a much higher number than we had expected.  Yet all of the engineering teams used a power point presentation for their final project.”  Her colleague Jose Alfaro, a graduate student in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment adds: “Even if there is a computer facility that the students have access to, the situation is far from ideal: students can only use the computer for 30 minutes at a time, which really is not enough considering how slow the computers are.  Plus, there’s the problem of energy: the computer lab runs on a generator for lack of regular electricity, but the generator is often out as well.”

Reactions from the Liberian college students involved in the Summer Start program show that another of the program’s critical aims—to help students see the importance of careers in engineering and agriculture and appreciate the many connections between the two fields—is also being addressed.  As one of the participants noted afterwards: “I have come to understand that every engineer connects one watt to the other, whether he or she does geology, civil, mining, or electrical engineering, and even agriculture.  We all can work together as a team to build our country Liberia.”  Others mentioned how much they had personally grown as students by doing group work and being challenged to be creative and critical.  One of the female students ex-plained: “I learned to be self dependent in acquiring knowledge.  Really most Liberian kids, including myself before [attending Summer Start] rely on their instructors for notes and don’t believe in doing extra research, but now that has really changed in me.”

Jackson Tamba and Adolphus Nippae, two Engineering faculty from the University of Liberia who currently are visiting scholars at U-M, confirm that word has gotten out about the promising changes ahead at the Engineering division as a result of the EHELD grant.  According to Tamba, the latest enrollment figures at the Department of Electrical Engineering are up from 180 students to 315, with even higher numbers for other engineering departments such as civil and mining.  Nippae reflects on how favorably this situation compares to the reality when he was a student: “I graduated high school in 1995, as one of a class of 425 students from the biggest and maybe best school in Liberia.  Only two of these highly motivated people went on to get a degree in engineering, because they realized that there were just no resources to do engineering.  Many went into different fields, such as business.  Many more just dropped out.”  

The Summer Start program and the research residencies for University of Liberia engineering faculty are only two aspects of U-M’s role in the EHELD initiative, which runs through September 2016.  The Summer Start program will be repeated for four more summers, alternating between Cuttington and the University of Liberia.  In addition to professors Tamba and Nippae, another eight Liberian professors from different areas of engineering will come to U-M for individual research residencies of six months, while two Liberian graduate students will be funded for two years at U-M.  Moreover, small teams of Engineering undergraduate students, supervised by a faculty member, will have the opportunity to travel to Liberia to work on community-based research.  They will use their engineering skills to come up with sustainable solutions in fields such as energy and sanitation, while gaining valuable international experience and learning how to engage stakeholders.  Finally, one or more U-M Engineering faculty will teach at the University of Liberia for a total of two academic years, while a librarian from the College of Engineering will help rebuild the university’s engineering library.    

To the extent that EHELD is also intended as a catalyst for other initiatives, the first reactions are encouraging.  As Prof. Winful notes, “further initiatives are already sprouting up from our work on EHELD.  I get emails from Liberian organizations and other entities offering their skills and resources; they are asking ‘How can we help?’”  An example of a new-found partner-ship is that with Peace Corps. U-M will train Peace Corps volunteers already living in communities throughout Liberia so they can facilitate one-day sessions about engineering, technology, and agriculture for middle school students.  Graduate student Jose Alfaro mentions another example of complementary initiatives.  “We quickly realized the importance of sustainability and renewable energy,” he said, “so while we were still in Liberia, we set up a branch of our student organization Sustainability without Borders at the University of Liberia.”

Professor Winful notes that he is pleased with the collaboration between the ASC and the College of Engineering on the EHELD grant.  “ASC’s director and staff were tremendously helpful in terms of their connections and good relationships with the president of the University of Liberia.  Even if it’s a technical grant like EHELD, you still have to be mindful of cultural components.  And what’s really great about ASC is that it actually does include the STEM fields, which is something that sets this African Studies center apart from others.”  He continues: “The EHELD program—being quite development-oriented—is not something the College of Engineering normally does, at least not on this large, country-wide scale; so one has to work a little harder to convince people to go ahead with it.  But as soon as they realize the benefits to the College—for example, how it allows our undergrads to gain experience in sustainable engineering projects and fits into our Global Engineering mission—the support follows.”