ATF Interview: Dean of Ashesi University’s Engineering Department, Dr. Nathan Amanquah

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African Technology Forum interviewed Dr. Nathan Amanquah, the Acting Dean of the Engineering Department, and Senior Lecturer in the Computer Science Department, of Ashesi University.  Ashesi, in Berekuso, Eastern Region, Ghana, is an independent, not-for-profit university offering degrees in Business Administration, Management of Information Systems, Computer Science, and Engineering with interdisciplinary coursework across the humanities and social sciences, mathematics, and business and computer science.  (ATF has had a student chapter at Ashesi.)  Dr. Nathan Amanquah holds a BSc in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana, and a PhD in the same from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland.

As a leading educator and technical professional, ATF wanted our audience to learn more about Dr. Amanquah, his work, and more about Ashesi and its future.

ATF: As a child, what made you interested in what we now call STEM?

Dr. Amanquah: Three things: My mother was a teacher and she had lots of textbooks for primary and the middle school, many of these were science textbooks.  I liked to try out the experiments in them.  It was, however, challenging to carry out the magnetism experiments in the textbooks because I did not have access to the necessary resources (very long wires, etc.).

I also had a cousin who visited us often, and he had access to bulbs and batteries, and we liked to light up the bulb in dark spaces (e.g. underneath a bed, etc.).  My primary school also had a fantastic science teacher.  He introduced us to much of the basic physics I eventually did in Secondary, form 3 and 4 – e.g. rectilinear propagation of light, concave and convex lenses, expansion from heating.  He did the experiments in class, not just speak about them.

ATF: As a young student, what drove your interest in software and engineering?

Dr. Amanquah: I always wanted to do electrical engineering because I found it fascinating and it came naturally to me.  (there were outstanding experiments I had not yet been successful with).  Although I knew someone who was a computer analyst when I was in primary school, I started learning from a computer-based tutor in form 3, alongside my Dad when he went for lessons (at the time, learning Word Star and SuperCalc 3).

When the lessons ended, the tutor indicated that one could write programs to make the computer do whatever one wanted.  For example type in “print ‘Hi'”, which I did, and it responded with “Hi”.  That was my first program.  From then on, I read voraciously on how to program in BASIC.  However, I had no further access to a computer.  I only wrote code on paper.  I could see the potential of solving problems with code.

My first major program was to do the sums for continuous assessment and ordering of grades for my mother’s class.  That fire has not gone away. Programming is a hobby, and I keep myself updated whenever a significant software development language or framework comes along.  For me, engineering is my profession, and software development is a hobby.

ATF: What hardware and software systems have you worked with?  What were your favorite aspects of those to work on?

Dr. Amanquah: On the operating systems front I have worked with DOS, Novell, Unix and Linux variants, and MacOS and Windows variants.  I work with proprietary and open source productivity suites (OpenOffice, Microsoft Office, and those from Apple’s stables).  For software development, I have ran the gamut from C/C++ to Python, from dBase II to VBA, ASP to PHP, a range of frameworks for web applications, a very wide range of mobile application development technologies.

For hardware, I work with a range of microcontroller based systems including Arduino, and industrial PLCs (programmable logic controllers).

I enjoy addressing challenges, e.g. bugs that plague others for days or weeks.  It is pleasant to be able to home in on an intractable problem and address it with insight and experience.

ATF: Were you involved in the organizational design of the Engineering Department at Ashesi?  If so, what were some of the things that drove the decision making?

Dr. Amanquah: I was involved in designing some of the course descriptions, and providing critical review of the Electrical and Electronic Engineering program especially.  We needed to be competitive, relevant to the local market while making our graduates comparable internationally.

ATF: Where do you envision your Engineering Department going?  What are the main areas you and your colleagues are planning to have it be further differentiated by?

Dr. Amanquah: To become the center of excellence for designing, fabricating and fashioning out engineering solutions to local problems.  Key is to relate the theory taught in textbooks, which anyone can read for themselves, to practice.  Faculty are thus required to lead lab sessions and to develop innovative labs, not typically what may be found in some lab manual.

ATF: What do you see as the top three challenges facing the advancement of STEM in your nation today?

Dr. Amanquah:

  1. Finding sufficiently talented and motivated individuals who are passionate about imparting practical training and knowledge to students. Industry tends to be more attractive to potential instructors.
  2. Development of teaching activities – at all levels – that show the connection between the theory and practice, hence leading students to see how they can immediately apply what has been taught.
  3. Insufficient/lack of research funding opportunities locally, coupled with a lack of commissioned locally relevant research or projects that impact the local society and community. Great student projects often end up on shelves.  Some local problems with engineering solutions could be addressed by engaging expertise in our institutions, to engineer locally appropriate solutions.

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