Interviews with the WISE Awards 2010 Laureates - Neil Turok, Next Einstein Initiative (AIMS-NEI)

November 18, 2010 at 6:26am

Neil Turok
African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS)
South AfricaNeil Turok African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) South Africa

 

1.     Can you give us a brief description of your project?

 

We’re creating special centres where brilliant students from all over Africa are taught - by some of the best lecturers in the world - to become capable young scientists and technologists.

 

2.     How did your project start and what gave you the idea?

 

It started in 2003 with the purchase of a derelict hotel in Cape Town. With the help of several donors, the hotel was converted into a 24-hour learning centre for maths and science. The name AIMS stands for African Institute for Mathematical Sciences and it tells you the project has a purpose – to enable young Africans to become skilled people who can contribute to the growth and self-sufficiency of their countries and continent. The idea came about through discussions among African and international scientists who realized that Africa urgently needs its own scientists who can help solve the continent’s many problems. AIMS is now an established centre, training over 50 postgraduate students per year, and new AIMS centres are being created in other African countries.

 

3.     How is your project contributing to “Transforming Education”?

 

AIMS is very innovative in many ways. First, the students come from many countries across Africa and have many different religions, cultures, languages. Maths and science form a common focus and language, bridging all these differences and bringing the students together. Second, the learning is not focused on exams but rather on enabling students to become independent thinkers and problem solvers. Lectures are an opportunity for teachers and students to interact, and as much learning occurs between the students as from the lecturers. Third, AIMS is managed as a partnership between local African and international universities. It’s a special place where people feel very happy to visit, meet people and share the joy and magic of science. Finally, AIMS is an intense learning environment where students and lecturers live together and share their experience, within a family atmosphere.

 

4.     What were the main challenges you had to face?

 

Many people were skeptical that we would find students of sufficient ability to become young scientists, many thought overseas lecturers would not come and many thought the project would fail due to lack of funding. Of course, we had to recruit the students and lecturers and institute, design and implement an excellent facility, and raise the funding.

 

5.     What achievements are you most proud of?

 

The students have been incredibly successful. Over 95 per cent have gone on to Masters and PhD degrees, and many are now lecturers or researchers at excellent research centres.

 

6.     Please tell us about the people who have benefited from your project.

 

Three hundred and fifty nine students so far, a third of them women, from 31 African countries.  And over a hundred lecturers and tutors who have had the great pleasure of teaching them.

 

7.     What are the future plans and next steps for your project?

 

We plan to create 15 AIMS centres all over Africa, within the next decade.

 

8.     What would be your best or most unexpected experience from managing this project?

 

There are too many to describe. People who have been through terrible hardship in their childhood, either through being born into poor families, through being refugees, losing their whole family through genocide, or growing up in HIV-devastated areas. Yet their intellectual talent has survived and they have become very able researchers, scientists, educators.

 

9.     What is your definition of “education”?

 

Learning to think for yourself.

 

10.  How do you think this Award will contribute to your project?

 

We hope it will bring us new partners in helping to develop Africa’s huge untapped pool of scientific and technical talent, because this talent is urgently needed for Africa’s future economic, educational and technological self-sufficiency. We also hope this award will inspire others to “reinvent the university” in new and more effective ways.

 

Now check the profiles of the other 2010 Laureates:

http://bit.ly/WISEAwards

 

For more information on this project, please visit:

http://www.aims.ac.za/