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African School of Physics Program Aims to Launch More Science Careers


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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 in Long Island, New York. "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.

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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.

"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."

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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.

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

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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.

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"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."

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.

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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.

"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.