Paving the way for future engineers

Professor Kim Jenkins, the SANRAL Chair in Pavement Engineering at the University of Stellenbosch, writes about the transformative role the national roads agency plays in education.

Professor Kim Jenkins, the SANRAL Chair at the University of Stellenbosch, said the postgrad programme in pavement engineering has gone from strength to strength over the past 17 years.

One of the many valuable statements that passed from Madiba’s lips was: “Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.” The world has struggled to internalise and embrace it.

When the South African National Roads Agency (SOC) Limited (SANRAL) decided to depart from investing in inanimate road infrastructure only and turned to funding the Chair in Pavement Engineering at the University of Stellenbosch, it was clear that Madiba’s wisdom had taken root on home soil. This was especially the case given SANRAL’s primary objective of developing human capital and building capacity in the field of pavement engineering.

The inception of the SANRAL Chair in Pavement Engineering in 2001 came at an opportune time, with foundations laid by the preceding pavement academics and Sabita (Southern African Bitumen Association) Chairs at Stellenbosch University. However, only a handful of pavement engineering graduates were being fed into the industry annually. There was a glaring need to create a critical mass of postgraduate researchers. The SANRAL Chair rose to the challenge.

The stimulus needed to get more postgrad researchers involved can be generated in several different academic spheres, attracting experts into the programme from time to time to assist in presenting good-quality courses, innovative research that breaks boundaries and product and model development that benefits industry.

At the same time, a redress of the diversity profile in pavement engineering was required. Through teamwork, the pavement engineering group at Stellenbosch University has managed to achieve growth in the key areas of tertiary education. The growth brought with it unprecedented diversity, both from within South Africa and beyond its borders.

Within five years, the postgraduate profile was transformed from isolated candidates of colour to between 40% and 60% of students emanating from historically disadvantaged communities – a trend that has been maintained for 10-years.

The postgrad programme in pavement engineering has gone from strength to strength over the past 17 years.

Among the defining features is the Chair’s cooperation with international universities in Rwanda, Brazil, China, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy and the US. With regard to outputs, seven doctoral and 51 Masters degrees have been awarded under the study leadership of the Chair. More than 1 000 student courses have been completed in the same period, with the total number of course delegates exceeding 1 600.

Undergraduate activities have also flourished, with inputs from the SANRAL Chair into transportation science, advanced design, research projects and materials science in second- to fourth year courses.

Statistics alone do not capture the essence of an academic chair, nor do they give true meaning to nurturing and mentoring. An old African proverb says “It takes a village to raise a child”.

Within all of the activities of the SANRAL Chair lie mentors who bridge gaps between academic teaching, postgraduate knowledge and undergraduate learning; industry volunteers who present courses, examine theses and moderate standards; industry sponsors and benefactors who help initiate research projects and procure equipment for the university; and students themselves, who volunteer to inform and prepare scholars for careers in engineering.

With such inspiration from our future engineers, there is no doubt of our conviction that the SANRAL Chair will continue to build human capital in pavement engineering.

This is an opinion piece by Professor Kim Jenkins, the SANRAL Chair at the University of Stellenbosch.

Author

Ray Maota

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