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A Physics Education Project in Africa

Endre Lillethun
Department of Physics, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway

The developing countries need a technological development not onlyr to benefit from the discoveries of the last century but also to develop their own technologies, useful in their environment. Note that a technological development contrasts a transfer of technology from industrial countries. It is dependent on an infrastructure of a general understanding of the natural sciences among the inhabitants. The basic understanding should be obtained in primary and high school.

An educational growth in a poor country or region can be speeded up through collaborations with persons from richer countries. In such a collaboration, one of the most important "rules" to remember is that potential and intelligence of persons from both sides is the same quality. The poorer ones have a setback due only to fewer opportunities to make use of their gifts towards education and research in the way this is possible in richer countries. One should also remember that they have a solid knowledge and wisdom useful in their living situation. This is valid in all stages of education, and if this is made use of in the educational process, it will give self-reliance to the pupils/students and ease the absorption of new knowledge and show its relation to daily life.

During the 1980s, it was becoming very clear that research in physics and mathematics was losing ground in many developing countries and this occurrence was fairly evident in Africa, where, due to disastrous proceedings 15-20 years past, a slump in research and research methods has been experienced. Seeing the need for a revival of research and research methods for local use, and the possibility of a partnership with a richer country, the collaboration project "Basic Physics for Technological Development in Uganda" Between Makarere University, Uganda and the University of Bergen, Norway was conceived, through the help of a four-year financing fund.

The aims of the project were: i) to facilitate a technological development in the country, in a build-up of possibilities for developing both education and research in the basic sciences, ii)to take part in Competence and Capacity Building, particularly on the experimental side, iii)to make the research fields be selected by the Makarere staff, related to local needs, iv)to rehabilitate and modernize the teaching laboratories including the production of proper manuals for the practicals, v) to find Norwegian supervisors for graduate students and Ph.D. students, giving the possibility for the students to visit their advisors, to use a good library, and to copy articles of use for their studies, degree studies to be carried out as sandwich programs where the students spend most of their time at the Makarere University, adding to the local academic environment also during the study period, and vi)to supply some of the essentials for infrastructure, such as copying machines, computers and overhead projectors.

The above aims were followed up by: i) having persons in charge of the practicals visit similar laboratories in Norway, studying their methods and experiments, and starting the adaptation to and development of the Makarere facilities, ii) finding Norwegian researchers and Ugandan students for the different research topics selected, and procuring suitable equipment, iii) planning for the number of graduate students per year, and iv) planning an efficient use of the funds available.

The research was carried in different fields of the sciences, some of the fields focused on were the physics on studies of physical and chemical parameters of products made from clays in the abundant Uganda clay deposits, electronic devices, radiation physics, solar energy.

Under the project, about 35 Ugandans have completed M Sc studies in physics, chemistry and mathematics and 20 more are on their way. Two Ugandans have completed their Ph D studies and 8 more are on their way. A few Norwegians have also taken up degrees in the same subjects within the project.

Local workshops and seminars have been held for the academic and for the technical staff, with resource persons form Norway and from the region. International conferences in chemistry and in Mathematics and information seminars have been held for the public in Kampala and in other cities. In addition to a few publications in international journals, there have been international publications in proceedings from the conferences mentioned above and at conferences attended in the region.

As affirmed by the research fields covered and the particular studies pursued, the project has worked out in the way it was planned: to revive and develop one’s research and research methods and to use this in locally based research, and not to feel compelled to copy the research trends in industrialized countries. The departments have made a leap forward and have thus made their initial contribution towards giving Makarere University once more (as in the fifties) the status of "Harvard of Africa".

The about 25 Norwegian partners in the project have found it a rewarding activity, meeting hardworking and friendly persons who contributed to the research such that some of the joint research projects still continue, financed from normal university funding.

The apparently unique way of making the Ugandan University itself decide on the priorities of the projects wanted, and that the project would keep on for years, leading to continuous contact with scientists from abroad was strongly appreciated. The results of this project show that an expanded effort in enhancing science education in poorer countries is extremely rewarding, and hopefully, many others will follow suit.