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More Science Careers: African School Of Physics on Mission To Educate New African Generation Through Traveling Program

"Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement," she wrote in an email. She noted "increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce."

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Africa
Ketevi Assamagan, a particle physicist at the U.S.-based Brookhaven National Laboratory, co-founded the African School of Physics, a training program for graduate students in math and sciences. (Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory) VOA

Africa-born particle physicist Ketevi Assamagan is a man on a mission. His goal is to bring science education to a new generation of young Africans through a traveling program known as the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications, or ASP.

“Sometimes, people just need some help to be able to find the right resources,” said Assamagan, an ASP founder who works at the U.S. Energy Department’s Brookhaven National Laboratory here on Long Island. “So, together with some colleagues, we decided to create this school.”

Born in Guinea, Assamagan grew up in Togo and earned a doctorate from the University of Virginia in 1995. Gratitude to past mentors fueled his desire to start the ASP, he said.

Positive elements

The ASP program runs for three weeks every two years in a different African country. The first was in 2010 in South Africa, with subsequent gatherings in Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda and Namibia. The next is planned for July 2020 in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Each workshop brings together up to 80 students, who are treated to intensive lectures and training by top-flight physicists.

Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)
Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)

“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.”

The students’ expenses are covered by roughly 20 international sponsors, including the Brookhaven lab; the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy; the South African Department of Science and Technology; and Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics.

Another sponsor has been the European Center for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in Geneva. Assamagan worked on CERN’s particle accelerator for several years while conducting research on the elusive Higgs boson subatomic particle. He left in 2001 to join Brookhaven.

Sustained support

After the program, participants are paired with senior mentors who offer advice on additional education, teaching and research opportunities, both in Africa and abroad.

For Zimbabwe native Last Feremenga, participation in the 2010 ASP workshop served as a springboard to a doctorate in physics from the University of Texas. Now he’s a data scientist with Digital Reasoning, an artificial intelligence firm headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I sift through large datasets of written text in search of rare forms of conversations/language. These rare conversations are useful for our clients from health care to finance,” the 32-year-old told VOA in an email. He added that he’s using “similar tactics” to those he learned at ASP.

Julia MacKenzie, senior director of international affairs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says training programs such as ASP are especially important in developing countries.

“Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement,” she wrote in an email. She noted “increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce.”

“A potential impact of graduate training is exposure to new ideas and people,” MacKenzie added. “Any time graduate students can come together, it’s likely that new friendships will form, and those relationships can provide support through inevitable challenges and spawn new collaborations.”

application learning
“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.” Pixabay
Hands-on learning

Assamagan says that when he was in high school in Togo, science was taught from second-hand textbooks from abroad. There was no experimentation.

“Direct involvement … in terms of playing with things and getting mental challenge to try to figure it out was not really there,” he said. “We want to resolve that” through ASP.

The 70 or so science teachers at the workshop last year in Namibia learned hands-on experiments that could be replicated with scant equipment and resources.

For example, using only a small plastic box with an aluminum plate, tin foil, Styrofoam, pure alcohol and dry ice, high school students could build a tabletop “cloud chamber” to simulate the detection of cosmic particles from outer space. Another experiment taught physics to elementary school children by way of art. The children could drip paint on a canvas tilted at various angles, then observe the patterns the paint made as it descended.

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“You can then start introducing the idea of gravity,” Assamagan said. “And then relating things falling down to the Earth going around the sun as being driven by the same force.”

Assamagan predicts a bright future for physics research in Africa. He says he sees talent and commitment, but that more digital libraries, along with continent-wide access to high-speed internet connections and the political will to provide them, are needed. (VOA)

Next Story

Africa Aims at Battling Extremism, Ebola and Hunger in 2020

Africa Starts 2020 Battling Extremism, Ebola and Hunger

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Africa Health
A health worker fills a syringe with Ebola vaccine before injecting it to a patient, in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa. VOA

A tragic airline crash with far-reaching consequences, cataclysmic cyclones that may be a harbinger of the future, the death of an African icon and a new leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize. These African stories captured the world’s attention in 2019, and look to influence events on the continent in 2020.

The battles against extremist violence and Ebola will also continue to be major campaigns in Africa in the coming year.

The crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa in March killed all 157 passengers and crew. The disaster, which claimed the lives of a large number of U.N. officials, involved a Boeing 737 Max jet and came just five months after a similar crash in Indonesia of the same aircraft.

Africa airline
Foreign investigators examine wreckage at the scene where the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed shortly after takeoff killing all 157 on board, near Bishoftu, or Debre Zeit, south of Addis Ababa, Africa. VOA

Boeing was inundated with questions about the safety of its plane. After initially claiming that it was safe, the company was forced to ground the plane after many countries refused to let it fly in their airspace. In December Boeing announced that it would suspend production of the jet.

The air crash was a trial for Ethiopia’s reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who later in the year won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for achieving peace with neighboring Eritrea. But Abiy is challenged by often violent ethnic rivalries in his country and elections set for May 2020 will be crucial, analysts say.

Cyclone Idai ripped into Mozambique in March, killing more than 1,300 people, making it “one of the worst weather-related disasters ever to hit the southern hemisphere,” according to the U.N. A month later Cyclone Kenneth roared into northern Mozambique, killing more than 50 people.

This was the first time in recorded history that Mozambique had two major cyclones, prompting some to worry that the country, with a 1,000-mile Indian Ocean coastline, may be prone to more storms as a result of climate change.

Africa extremism
A general view shows the scene of a car bomb explosion at a checkpoint in Mogadishu, Somalia, Africa. VOA

Across Mozambique more than 2.5 million people remain in urgent need of assistance, according to the U.N. Mozambique also starts 2020 troubled by ongoing attacks on vehicles in the country’s central area and by Islamic extremist attacks in the country’s north.

Extremist violence continues to vex Africa from the east to the west.

2019 began with extremist violence. In Kenya in January, insurgents launched an assault on a luxury hotel and shopping complex in Nairobi that killed at least 14 people.

The year came to an end with extremist attacks across the continent.

A bomb in Somalia killed 78 people, including many university students, in the capital, Mogadishu, on Dec. 28, the deadliest attack in years. Somalia’s al-Shabab, allied to al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the bombing.

In Nigeria extremists linked to the Islamic State group circulated a video showing 11 hostages, most of them Christians, being executed. They were thought to be killed on Christmas Day. The extremist group, which calls itself the Islamic State West Africa Province, said the captives were executed as revenge for the killing of Islamic State group leaders in Iraq and Syria in October.

In northern Burkina Faso, jihadists killed 35 civilians, most of them women, and ensuing clashes with security forces left 80 jihadists dead, the West African nation’s president announced Dec. 24. That attack came weeks after an attack on a convoy carrying employees of a Canadian mining company in which at least 37 civilians were killed in the country’s east. Both attacks were by groups numbering close to 100, indicating the presence of relatively large, well-organized extremist groups.

“The startling deterioration of the security situation in Burkina Faso has been a major development in 2019,” said Alex Vines, director of the Africa program at Chatham House, the British think tank. “There’s been a dramatic spike in extremist attacks.”

Frequent attacks in Burkina Faso’s north and east already have displaced more than a half million people, according to the United Nations. While Burkina Faso’s military has received training from both former colonizer France and the United States, it starts 2020 with little progress in halting the surge in extremist violence.

President of South Africa
President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during a state funeral of Zimbabwe’s longtime ruler Robert Mugabe, at the national sports stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe. VOA

Congo starts the year waging a different kind of war, a campaign against Ebola, which has killed more than 2,200 people since August 2018. The medical effort to control the second deadliest Ebola outbreak in history has been severely hampered since the start by the presence of several armed groups in eastern Congo, the epicenter of the epidemic. It was hoped that new vaccines would help control the outbreak more quickly, but the violence has hampered those efforts.

Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi, elected in 2019, said in November that he was optimistic that the Ebola outbreak would be ended before 2020, but the epidemic continues throughout eastern Congo.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, re-elected in 2019, said in a New Year’s statement that the need to boost his country’s ailing economy and create jobs is his biggest challenge for 2020. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, also re-elected, has said that his government has controlled the rebellion by Boko Haram extremists, but violence continues to plague the country’s northeast.

Zimbabwe’s longtime ruler, Robert Mugabe, died at age 95 in September. Mugabe, the guerrilla leader who fought to end white-minority rule in Rhodesia and then ruled independent Zimbabwe from 1980 until 2017, left a mixed legacy of liberation, repression and economic ruin.

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Zimbabwe begins the new year with severe economic problems including inflation estimated at more than 300% and widespread hunger. In an emergency appeal at the end of December, the U.N.’s World Food Program said that even though the southern African country had suffered a drought, Zimbabwe’s food shortages are a ‘man-made” disaster, laying the blame squarely with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government.

The once-prosperous country staggered to 2020 with power shortages lasting up to 19 hours per day and large parts of the capital, Harare, a city of some 2 million people, going without running water. (VOA)