SpaceX Launch: Making a case for STEM Education in Nigeria

This article covers the need for the Nigerian government to fund STEM Research and Development, that allow its youthful population to compete in a rapidly changing world.

SpaceX Launch: Making a case for STEM Education in Nigeria

NASA launched SpaceX's Falcon 9 at 3:22 PM from pad 39A.

Washington, DC—A few hours ago, I witnessed NASA's launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket as it lifted off at 3:22 PM from pad 39A, the historic site from which the crew of Apollo 11 left for the moon. Another historic moment for the American people, as it is the first launch of a crew from the U.S. soil since the space shuttle program ended nearly nine years ago.

The historic mission is the first U.S. orbital flight of a new piloted spacecraft in 39 years.

Throughout human history, scientist have sort ways to maximise space. I was able to witness this feat from the comfort of my mobile device, a moment that would not have been possible without advancement in technology.

As I watched with an overjoyed curiosity I felt slight pang towards Nigeria. I was triggered by the gradual descent in leadership, poor coordination and lack of government funding for research and development in Science, Technology, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

Few Nigerians are aware of the country's space program, which dates back to 1976, and not until 1999 was a National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) established.

Currently, the private sector funds the bulk of the functioning systems in the country, which extends to STEM-related projects. For example, when it comes to funding STEM research, only three universities in the country can boast of standard resources and structures; Covenant, Babcock and the University of Ibadan. Also, privately owned hubs and companies, like CCHub, TechCabal, Paystack, Cregital, among others, are the latest spaces for thriving technological advancement in Nigeria.

The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), tasked with providing leadership and vision in the area of research and development for the future of STEM, is often webbed in corruption allegations, sexual scandals, and strikes. University structures for research are dilapidated, abandoned, and unkempt with little Government intervention.

Despite having 17 agencies, the Science and Technology Research and Development program of Nigeria received only ₦66 billion ($171 million) out of a ₦9 trillion 2019 budget. A further breakdown of the paltry 0.75% allocation showed that a huge chunk of the budget was for salaries (recurrent expenditure) and not actual R&D (NASS budget, 2019).

Meanwhile, in the same year, the U.S. government approved $118.1 billion for R&D funding, with a 2% increase than the previous year (White House, 2019). Although the private sector contributes majorly to the U.S. R&D, the Federal Government also plays a role. The U.S. FG invests in areas of critical importance to national and economic security, such as seen with the Space project.

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I was born and raised in Nigeria, and from a very young age, I was already unsettled about spending the rest of my life there. The country limits how far you can dream, and when you do like the Biblical Joseph, you are laughed at or scorned. The political climate is toxic, institutions abysmal and the people accessories to all that has gone wrong with the country, and nothing seems to be changing.

I moved to the U.S. in 2017, and recent events on the American soil, have brought me to drawing parallels of its political space and police brutality with what happens in Nigeria.

However, the oxymoron distinguishing both nations was evident today, with the space launch, a feat Nigeria may not achieve in another century. Nigeria has a plethora of brilliant people whose ability to be adroit or compete with their counterparts across the globe has been impaired by the lack of good governance, resources, mentoring and space for development.

According to a Quartz, Nigeria churns out an estimated 500,000 graduates from its tertiary institution yearly. Majority of these graduates fail to find employment after their first year of leaving school. Some factors causing unemployment include a lack of digitalised skills and failure of government programs to absorb graduates. This problem can be solved if the Nigerian Government makes a deliberate effort to revitalize its educational institutions, recognize the place of technology in addressing employment challenges, increase funding for R&D, implement and update science, technology and innovation policies.

Also, there is a need for the re-orientation of the Nigerian citizen who has little understanding of the Government's policies, budgetary allocation, or the pressing need for good governance.

Nigeria has a reported growing population nearing 200 million with over 60% of that under the age of 25 years. Deliberate investment and collaboration between the Nigerian government and the private sector in STEM will see the younger generation better equipped to compete.

Furthermore, the work does not start only at tertiary level, as may be implied throughout this text. Children, and young adults should have access to materials from an early stage, that improves interest and curiosity in STEM fields. The educational system should be re-oriented to allow students to question research, and funded to sponsor and reward brilliant minds who innovate. Nigeria needs a workforce that can up-scale our agriculture for exportation, improve and expand energy sources for electricity, improve research in biomedicine for health, and provide data for development.

The launch of SpaceX into Orbit at the height of a pandemic began nine years ago as a wild project embarked on by Elon Musk. "The cosmic-size shift to private companies allows NASA to zero in on deep space travel. The space agency is busting to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 under orders from the White House, a deadline looking increasingly unlikely even as three newly chosen commercial teams rush to develop lunar landers. Mars also beckons." (MSNBC News)

Sadly, as other nations continue to strengthen and up-skill their workforce, detaching themselves rapidly from manual labor and moving to virtual and orbital spaces, Nigeria feels like a black hole that leaves those with hope questioning. In 2016, the Nigerian Minister of Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu, announced that the country in a bid to create more jobs would start producing pencils.

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