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Interdisciplinary Engineering Programs Seek Practical Solutions for Agriculture in Egypt

/ 22 Sep 2021

Interdisciplinary Engineering Programs Seek Practical Solutions for Agriculture in Egypt

Agriculture students at four Egyptian universities will soon start studying new curricula that combine interdisciplinary engineering with ecological and environmental aspects.

The new curricula aim to support the Egyptian rural communities by supplying the market with better university graduates and more accessible knowledge hubs for farmers, hoping to steer people away from leaving the countryside and migrating to urban centers and beyond.

“A significant number of people are forced to migrate because of economic pressures,” said Sigward von Laue, president of research and international affairs at Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development, in Cairo. “By enabling farmers and small local businesses to make a good and sustainable living where they are, we reduce the urge for leaving the countryside.”

“A lot of curricula at agriculture universities are outdated and the teaching techniques are the same as 50 years ago.”

Sigward von Laue   President of research and international affairs at Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development

The changes in curricula will take effect this academic year at Heliopolis University, the American University in Cairo, and Alexandria and Aswan Universities.

The curricula were developed under SureMap, one of two European Union-funded projects that focus on improving the resilience of agricultural communities in Egypt.

SureMap works to establish interdisciplinary engineering curricula that combine know-how in solar technology, hydrology and irrigation with mechanical, electrical and soil engineering, as well as urban planning and ecological and environmental aspects.

The other project, DeVilag, looks at the needs of small-scale farmers and what can be changed in the educational system to better serve those needs. Heliopolis University and the American University in Cairo are also participating in that project, along with two other institutions in Egypt: Cairo University and Fayoum University.

Updating Agricultural Curricula

Both projects have one thing in common: They start from education.

“A lot of curricula at agriculture universities are outdated and the teaching techniques are the same as 50 years ago,” von Laue said in a Zoom interview. “Times are changing and education has to change and adapt to that too,” he said.

New Interdisciplinary Engineering Programs in Egypt Focus on Agriculture
Students gather for a training session. The program pushes students to look at challenges from multiple directions “and not only from their specialty field,” says Sigward von Laue, head of research at Heliopolis University. “The moment this process is happening, then interdisciplinarity is something that comes about very naturally.”

The new curricula move away from theoretical and abstract education, and focus on problem-solving and fieldwork.

By encouraging students to be in the field and talking to farmers early on, von Laue hopes to bridge the gap between what is taught and the market and farmers’ needs, as students can notice firsthand how some problems are not as easy or straightforward as they might seem in theory.

“We push students into the roles of different stakeholders where they need to look at a challenge or a problem from all the directions and not only from their specialty field,” von Laue said. “The moment this process is happening, then interdisciplinarity is something that comes about very naturally.”

This summer Heliopolis University organized training and internships for 40 students in collaboration with DeVilag.

Salma Eladly, a final-year student of civil and water engineering at the university, said the training made her realize the need to improve irrigation systems in rural areas in Egypt. She said that this experience will allow her to better transfer her knowledge to farmers when she graduates.

“We have to stop traditional irrigation methods because they waste large amounts of water.”

Salma Eladly   A final-year student of civil and water engineering at Heliopolis University

“We have to stop traditional irrigation methods because they waste large amounts of water,” she said. “We have to find ways to provide for the farmers’ needs while conducting promotion and awareness campaigns.” (See two related articles, “New Data Show Water Scarcity Is Increasing in the Arab World, Stirring Discussion” and “Water is Scarce in Egypt; So Are Research Funds.”)

Academic Ideas vs. Real Needs

This change in mentality is not limited to students. According to von Laue, surveys carried by Heliopolis University revealed a sizable gap between what academics think farmers need versus the real needs of farmers.

“Some of the solutions created by academics worked very well in the laboratory because the people who implemented it were all academics, but in practice for the farmer, with the knowledge and education that the farmer has, it doesn’t work,” he said.

Faculty members from Heliopolis University visit a project area. Climate change and water scarcity issues are important aspects of the new curricula.
Faculty members from Heliopolis University visit a project area. Climate change and water scarcity issues are important aspects of the new curricula.

That’s why the SureMap and DeVilag projects also look at training professors in the participating Egyptian universities to address the different dimensions of sustainable agriculture and rural development.

Von Laue said that in general the changes faced some resistance from older professors, while the younger teaching staff were more enthusiastic.

Mohamed Abdelhameed Ahmed, an assistant professor of agricultural economics at Fayoum University, said his participation as a researcher in the DeVilag project changed the way he teaches.

“I have been developing and updating my courses to be market-driven and to meet the needs of the public and private sector”.

Mohamed Abdelhameed Ahmed   An assistant professor of agricultural economics at Fayoum University

“I have been developing and updating my courses to be market-driven and to meet the needs of the public and private sector. I have been changing my classes to be more student-centred learning. I am also increasingly using online teaching, flipped classes, developing MOOCs as open education resources for both undergraduate and postgraduate students,” he said by email.

Service Offices for Farmers

DeVilag and SureMap focus mainly on undergraduate and graduate students, but the projects are also looking beyond education and trying to reach all stakeholders in the agricultural value chain through farmer training and establishing service offices at the participating universities to provide technical support for the farmers and public and private sectors.

Climate change is an important aspect of the new curricula as well. The new study programs encourage students and faculty alike to look at their personal ecological footprint, while also addressing problems arising from climate change such as new crop diseases, water scarcity issues and how to have good harvests despite these problems. (See a related article, “Population Growth Compounds Climate Change.”)

But rather than teaching students how to respond to a specific set of challenges, the curricula seek to help students develop strategies that will enable them to recognize what will become a challenge in the future and how to find solutions for it.

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“People are often afraid of change so they stick to old tried and tested methods, but now it is clear that these methods lead to huge problems in the future,” von Laue said. “We are now living on the expense of our future generations, and this needs to change.”




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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام

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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام