Change the world


It is often hard to find light in the seemingly endless pandemic. Still, perhaps the single most valuable consequence for higher education during this time is that it has forced us to reimagine ways in which to reach and engage our students, industries and communities, and provided unexpected insights into what is possible when technology is optimally leveraged.

We have bridged the physical divide by converting our courses to online, providing students with data and devices to students without them.

One-way activities of traditional classrooms have transformed into flexible learning pathways where our students’ time on campus is focused on value-added activities in laboratories and maker-spaces, working on real-world projects.

From the outset of the pandemic, engineering, built environment and IT faculties at universities throughout SA rapidly responded to assist our communities and industries with speed, depth and scope.

Our faculty’s Centre for Community Technologies, for example, pioneered several ICT and mobile applications, including rolling out a Covid19 screening tool to 5,100 schools in the Eastern Cape and providing the ICT support for Nelson Mandela Bay’s 3,500-bed Rev Dr EM ChabulaNxiweni Field Hospital — the only paperless public sector hospital in the city.

The focus on medical innovations during the pandemic paved the way for future innovations in biomedical engineering in partnership our university’s new Medical School.

The Advanced Engineering Design Group is already involved in the development of intelligent prosthetics to assist people with limited mobility and, together with our Advanced Mechatronics Training Centre, is exploring innovative ventilator designs as part of the ViroVent initiative funded by merSETA.

I am convinced that if the pandemic had happened a decade ago, none of this would have been possible since technologies to support these achievements were still in their infancy.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is no longer a future event; it is happening now.

That some sectors of the economy are able to survive Covid-19, and our universities are able to continue operating, is the direct consequence of 4IR technologies.

The pandemic has shown us that we need to strengthen our efforts to leverage 4IR technologies, including helping companies build a networked economy where the focus is on interconnected ecosystems of shared value and distributed work.

During the Third Industrial Revolution (3IR), the focus was on turning humans into machines.

The focus in the 4IR has shifted to making machines more human and accelerating data-driven behavioural change in humans, including customised and agile learning.

We are already using virtual reality for diverse learning opportunities — from visiting the International Space Station to teaching students how to do precision welding.

What needs strengthening is a deliberate alignment of our higher education curricula with the computational thinking building blocks required for a 4IR-enhanced world.

Integrating the necessary computational thinking into higher education curricula should not be optional.

No student in engineering, the built environment, ICT, or any other related discipline should graduate if they cannot think computationally.

Towards this end, our faculty is revising existing courses and modules, and pioneering a new Bachelor in Engineering with an applied artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous systems focus.

We are also spearheading several high-impact fully online programmes, including a Bachelor of Information Technology.

Despite the pandemic, the entities linked to the Faculty of Engineering, the Built Environment and Technology were involved in more than 500 industry and community engagement projects during 2020.

Though extraordinary for such a small faculty at an SA university, it is still a tiny drop in the ocean [compared to the challenge] to grow our ailing economy and create muchneeded employment.

The pandemic has shown us that we need to strengthen our efforts to use 4IR technologies to help companies build a networked economy where the focus is on an interconnected ecosystem of shared value and distributed work.

We have also seen that by creating new online ecosystems, there is potential to broaden our national reach and grow our postgraduate numbers by tapping into a growing national and international market.

It offers an unprecedented opportunity to increase our partnerships and funding.

Our faculty is working on establishing new partnerships specifically with emerging economies such as Brazil and China, and we are reinvigorating our existing partnerships with countries like Germany and France.

A recent development is the establishment of a node of the French-South African Institute of Technology at Nelson Mandela University.

This academic co-operation between France and SA gives us access to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Paris region and partner universities such as Paris-Est Creteil, Gustav Eiffel and Montpellier.

During the height of the pandemic we also made significant strides to support our university’s ocean sciences focus, and align more closely with the Eastern Cape Oceans Science Economy Strategy — launched last year.

In addition to strengthening our new Bachelor of Engineering Technology in Marine Engineering, we are exploring opportunities for transdisciplinary research in marine and ocean sciences with the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology in Japan.

We also launched our faculty’s new Marine Robotics Unit, funded by the South African International Maritime Institute.

And so, while we continue to battle the pandemic, we can ride a different kind of wave and combine forces worldwide with universities, communities, industry, government and NGOs, to develop the best of the 4IR and make a meaningful contribution to the world.

This article appeared inthe Weekend Post of 20 February 2021 writtten by Professor Barend van Wyk, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, the Built Environment and Technology at Nelson Mandela University


Contact information
Prof Barend van Wyk
Executive Dean
Tel: +27 41 504 3955