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AIMS’ flagship campus in Cape Town, South Africa. NextEinstein/Flickr
AIMS’ flagship campus in Cape Town, South Africa. NextEinstein/Flickr

Will Africa Produce the ‘Next Einstein’?

There is no shortage of ideas for ways to help African countries rise out of poverty. From big-dollar funds set up to deliver food, water, or medicine to destitute villagers to vociferous calls to leave the continent alone, the subject almost invariably escalates to a shouting match burdened by the specter of colonialism.

But Thierry Zomahoun’s plan represents what may be described as a middle way, leveraging donor dollars in support of a long-term initiative that instills homegrown talent with the skills, confidence, and contacts to improve their communities. Zomahoun is the president and CEO of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a growing network of educational and research institutes that hopes to move the continent’s most capable intellectuals into the global spotlight.

There are three formal AIMS undertakings: a master’s degree program in Mathematical Sciences, research, and teacher training. The master’s program offers free tuition to accepted students and trains them in both general principles – problem formulation, the scientific method, communication – and cutting-edge math in subjects including computer science, biomathematics, and financial mathematics. Research will allow for international collaborations and advanced student training.

There are currently about a dozen researchers at the South Africa campus, and a handful of others distributed between sites in Senegal and Ghana. This number is expected to grow as each center develops its niche based on local needs and opportunities. Teacher training programs include a two-year advanced certificate course and a four-month intensive option; both programs involve both remote, web-based elements as well as residential stints at AIMS campuses.

Speaking at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin in early November, Zomahoun noted that AIMS is hoping to reverse the colonial legacy of African education in two main ways. Traditionally, classrooms were led by an authoritative teacher who disseminated information to silent students, but Zomahoun hopes to turn that paradigm on its head. “We train people who can challenge the status quo,” he explains, “not just people who learn from books, listen to lectures, and just repeat it.” Rather, he hopes to instill qualities like “critical thinking, independent thinking, and problem solving” in order to prepare students for real-world problems.

AIMS also addresses what Zomahoun views as a historic dearth of scientists. He notes that talented students have typically pursued the humanities, because it was the best educational and professional route available during the colonial era. The pattern has continued to this day: “80% of the high school population, those moving up to university were going into the humanities,” Zomahoun explains. “It’s great, but when you’re building a continent that needs to develop, you need more people in science.” With the aim of an improved development trajectory, AIMS prioritizes the applied elements of math – fields like economics, health, or natural resource management.

Math also represents an ideal starting point for an under-resourced region to begin the climb up the research ladder. State-of-the-art biochemistry or electrical engineering requires expensive instruments and years of training just to start generating data. “The good thing about mathematical sciences is that it doesn’t require heavy infrastructure,” Zomahoun says. “It’s cheap – you just need a pen, paper, and then you can do it.”

Of course, you also need promising talent and inspiring teachers, and Zomahoun is scouring the continent for precocious youth in an effort he’s calling the Next Einstein Initiative. “AIMS is training Africa’s brightest students,” he says, “and we’re trying to provide solutions to the critical issues that the continent is facing.”

 

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