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Njala University in Sierra Leone leads the way in preparing students for 21st Century jobs

Njala University is taking a new approach to learning with a focus on technology and innovation in Sierra Leone. Leaders at the university say that if graduates do not have the skills to match emerging job market opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, the institution would be failing its students and not be fit for purpose.   

At an academic seminar at the University’s Mokonde campus, Dr. Maurice Sesay, Acting Head of Physics & Computer Science laid out a plan for how computational thinking, connectivity, and coding can be used to prepare students for 21st Century jobs. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Sierra Leone’s youth unemployment rate is 70% with some 800,000 young people looking for jobs at any given time.  

Dr. Maurice Sesay, Acting Head of Physics & Computer Science (l) and Professor Abdullah Mansaray, Vice-Chancellor & Principal, Nuala University hold up official membership certification to the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (JWEL)

“We need to bridge the gap between the university and the workforce so that the curriculum can be designed to make students more marketable,” said Dr. Sesay.

Dr. Sesay who recently returned from a week-long hands-on workshop in April at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston is the focal point for Njala’s membership at the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) at MIT. The Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI) at the Office of the President appointed Njala University to be Sierra Leone’s beneficiary into the J-WEL program because it is the nation’s leading educational institution for STEM with a robust research program in Computer Science and technical postgraduate education.  DSTI, whose mandate is to transform Sierra Leone into an innovation nation, has an ongoing research and knowledge-sharing relationship with MIT that includes forging partnerships between academic institutions in Sierra Leone and MIT.

J-WEL is an incubator for change which “aims to spark a global renaissance in education for all learners, by leveraging MIT’s resources to convene a global community of collaborators for sustainable, high-impact transformation in education through research, policy, pedagogy, and practice.” J-WEL membership includes other higher and technical institutions from Asia, South America, Europe, and Africa.

Njala’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dr. Joseph Sherman-Kamara said that DSTI’s support through J-WEL would allow the institution to harness the tools needed to make graduates more employable.

“Higher education systems around the world are undergoing a tremendous transformation in the face of unpredictable circumstances in the job market due to rapid advancements,” said Dr. Sherman-Kamara.

The 21st Century technological revolution, also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, means that mechanized jobs are giving way to automation; creating a demand for STEM skills,  computing, and data science. Rapid prototyping, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and social media marketing are some of the 20 fastest growing skills in the world. Those who cannot learn the language of computing will be left behind.

“Coding is just a language; everyone can code. The best students, the most marketable, will be those who can speak spoken languages as well as computer languages like python,” said Dr. Sesay.

In attendance at the Seminar were higher education administrators from across Sierra Leone including the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Njala University, the Vice Chancellor of the Ernest Bai Koroma University of Science and Technology, and other representatives from Eastern Polytechnic in Kenema, and Milton Margai College of Education and Technology.  

At the end of the Seminar by Dr. Maurice Sesay, Njala and DSTI signed a Memorandum of Understanding. Dr. Moinina David Sengeh, Sierra Leone’s Chief Innovation Officer, said that Njala has demonstrated tremendous leadership in the manner in which it had embraced technology. The school has not only made ICT compulsory for all incoming students, but Njala also offers free open WIFI on campus (a first in the nation), allowing instant connectivity and public access.

Dr. Sengeh, Chief Innovation Officer, DSTI and Professor Abdullah Mansaray, Vice-Chancellor & Principal, Njala University sign MoU to solidify collaboration. 

“In terms of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; digital biology, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, you’re talking about the right things to make Njala not just a leader in Sierra Leone, or the continent, but for Njala to compete globally,” said Dr. Sengeh.

He challenged the university’s administration to go beyond making computer science compulsory to making coding as essential a part of the curriculum as English and Mathematics. Moreover, to the students, he encouraged each one to make it a priority to solve the problems with technology affecting students on campus.

“It is our responsibility as students, as learners, to create the solutions that we need,” said Dr. Sengeh during a roundtable with a cross section of students.

To further support learning, and problem-solving at Njala University, Dr. Sengeh on behalf of the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation donated a 3D Printer and materials to the university- making it the first institution in Sierra Leone outside of the Office of the President to own 3D printing technology.

At the launch of DSTI last year, President Bio challenged Sierra Leoneans to think big, to be innovative, and to change to meet the demands of the world; a message which resonated with the faculty at Njala, who are led by Vice-Chancellor, Professor Abdullah Mansaray.

“If we are to make meaningful contributions to national development, we have to innovate, we have to redesign and restructure the entire higher education sector,” said Professor Mansaray.

Njala University is re-engineering itself from the top down to create an academic ecosystem where research, problem-solving, and innovation can thrive.

“We plan to establish an innovation laboratory, and for that, we need material and financial support,” said Professor Mansaray.

“But the most important of what we need is the intellectual backstopping that Dr. Sengeh and his team {DSTI} will be providing us.”

 

Blog

Njala University student writes code for his country: how an intern’s grit earned him a role in the Office of the President

Sierra Leone’s Office of the President (OtP) will soon launch a new online invitation platform that will help the government manage and respond to invitations for President Maada Bio. The development of this OtP Event Invitation system was led by Foday S.N. Kamara, a 25-year-old intern at the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI).

Foday, a final year Njala University student was the first intern to join DSTI when the office was commissioned last year. He says that it was the 2003 film, “The Italian Job”, that sparked his interest in coding and algorithms. In one epic scene in the movie, Actor Seth Green’s character Lyle writes code to develop a new algorithm to override the traffic light system in LA to allow his crew to make a getaway after a major heist. This scene made Foday wonder what else he could do with algorithms. He borrowed books from a relative and taught himself to code. That was 16 years ago. Today, he is a final year Computer Science & Information Technology student at Njala passionate about writing code to support his country’s digitization efforts.

Before he joined DSTI, Foday had been developing an early warning SMS disaster response system to alert citizens of emergencies. In 2017 a mudslide, caused by heavy rains, and deforestation killed over 1000 Sierra Leoneans in just one day. That catastrophe inspired him to develop a solution that would reduce casualties during emergencies. Data for decision making, effective service delivery and citizen engagement are part of DSTI’s key strategic pillars.  Citizens need digital services that will enhance their lives and improve interaction with government.

When given the opportunity, he immersed himself and made a home at DSTI. Although just an intern, his commitment and attitude to problem-solving made him the Directorate’s first ever employee of the month in January. He was part of a team of scientists that are developing a prototype fleet management system that will allow the government to keep better manage its vehicles. Last year DSTI scientists revealed that illegal transfers of vehicles cost the state over $1 million dollars.

DSTI staff often play football, make music and dance #ShakuShaku together in the office. Yet Foday reflects that problem-solving sessions with Dr. David Sengeh, DSTI’s Chief Innovation Officer will be most memorable of his time at DSTI;  

“Most times when we have difficulties we complain. We say, ‘doc I’ve tried everything but its not working’. He’ll just tell you that you need to fix it, you should fix it. Several times we asked the same questions and get the same response. It’s fun. I thought why should we be asking , why can’t we get it done before we complain.”

Over the last six months since its launch, DSTI has trained several interns from Sierra Leone’s universities and high schools. Monjama Alpha, the top Physics and Engineering first year student at Fourah Bay College; Joseph Jawa Kebbie, a high school graduate from Christ the King’s College in Bo, and several students from Institute of Public Administration (IPAM) have learned to code and build systems alongside full time staff. DSTI offers these kinds of internships, fellowships, and externships for students, post-grads, and professionals who want to build the solutions that will transform Sierra Leone into an innovation nation.

For more information about opportunities at DSTI please contact us.

Check out Foday’s story in our first podcast from the lab.

 

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