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Tribute @ 61: How Austin Avuru became a science student

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In 1970 when Austin Avuru got into Orogun Grammar School (OGS), STEM referred to one thing, a structural axis or branch of a tree.

Austin Avuru

But today, as Judith Hallinen writes in an April 12, 2017 article, STEM now refers to a new field of study encompassing “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics…introduced in 2001 by scientific administrators at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).

The organization previously used the acronym SMET when referring to the career fields in those disciplines or a curriculum that integrated knowledge and skills from those fields. In 2001, however, American biologist Judith Ramaley, then assistant director of education and human resources at NSF, rearranged the words to form the STEM acronym. Since then, STEM-focused curriculum has been extended to many countries beyond the United States, with programs developed in places such as Australia, China, France, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

What does STEM have to do with Austin Avuru who grew up in rural Abbi of the late 60s and early 70s and attended school at the provincial but well regarded OGS ? Plenty as we will soon see.

But first some rumination. If life was fair and we all get what we wish for, Austin Avuru may not be the CEO of Nigeria’s pre-eminent oil and gas independent. “He would probably be a poorly paid journalist sweating it out in a musty newsroom with poor lighting and faulty air conditioning. Or maybe he would be a poor writer, famous across Africa and the rest of the world but unable to pay his bills or his children’s school fees.

But maybe, not to be too pessimistic, he could have become a top level economist, working for the Central Bank or the Africa Development Bank or maybe the IMF.

As he remembers it, his natural inclination was to the arts and social sciences. Science was not in his purview. He liked his English Literature as well as Economics and Commerce. He had grown up the son of a business woman who had married one of the richest men in their village so there was a natural or maybe reflex reaction to business.

The year was 1973 and Austin Avuru was about to choose the subjects he would enter for his West African School Certificate exams. Choosing a subject was a momentous occasion because the subjects you chose in Form 3 defined, in many ways, your subsequent academic and career trajectory.

I was going to choose these social sciences,” he recalls but he had a new teacher, a 25 years old chain smoking geologist who had been posted to OGS to teach physics. His name was Solomon Abba and as Austin recalls it one day, his young teacher asked him what subjects he was planning to choose and what he was planning to study at University.

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I said I will study Business Administration in the university. He said why? I said I want to be a businessman. And he said, but you can be a businessman even if you read engineering. I said really? He said yes. So, that’s how I dropped a few subjects. I brought in Physics then dropped French and Commerce. I also brought in Geography and kept Economics. My strength was in the social sciences. So, if I had read Economics, Sociology, especially Economics or Sociology or even the Arts, if I had read English Language or Literature in English, maybe I would have made a First Class without having to even work as hard as I did. But finishing secondary school, we were told that if you are a brilliant student you should be studying the sciences.

Today, that youth corps teacher is an Emeritus Professor at the Federal University, Bauchi. His name is Solomon Abba. Austin Avuru credits him with steering the ship of his destiny unto the path of STEM. “If there was any real influence on me in my secondary school, it was Mr. Abba who is now Professor Abba.

Professor Abba’s influence cannot be glossed over because Austin Avuru came from a home where there was no real influence academically. His mother was not schooled and the only educated adult in the family was his aunt Margaret who was married to the brilliant whip wielding teacher, Steve Emuh. But even then, how educated were they?“And this was not peculiar to Austin Avuru. It was the same for his bosom friend Pius Opute. He was also influenced by Abba to study the sciences because their natural brilliance made them STEM candidates.

Before Abba came to OGS and turned the youngster’s gazes towards the sciences Austin and Pius had a favourite teacher. His name was Mr. Iwebema and he taught them English. He wasn’t a graduate but the boys didn’t even realise it. He had an NCE but his students thought he was a professor and the best teacher on earth. He tooled around town in a spiffy Vespa and taught English Language as if he was first cousin to the Queen. Thanks to him, Austin made A3 in English which was remarkably impressive in a village school like OGS.

Why was Abba so influential in the lives of the two young Abbi boys and their eventual academic choices…? First was a perception of cool.“Solomon Abba was just 25 in 1973. Born in 1948 he had graduated with a 2:1 in Geology from Ahmadu Bello University and had come to Abbi among the first set of youth corps members when the scheme was launched in 1973. He was a young man just like the 17-year-old boys he was teaching Physics. His cool quotient was ratcheted higher by the fact that he was a chain smoking geology graduate who made physics look like arithmetic.

We just liked him,” Austin Avuru says with a fond smile. “Pius and I thought he was the most brilliant person on earth. He would come and teach us Physics and he had a way of dramatizing things. He always had a cigarette in one hand. He would be teaching and smoking a cigarette and when we told him to slow down that it was getting too difficult to follow he would laugh and say “wait till we get to Almighty formula.”

Secondly, Solomon Abba’s counsel was sought after and accepted because these were brilliant young boys with no role models when it came to academics. By the time they were choosing their subjects and preparing for WAEC, there was really no one in their families to go to provide sound counsel.

So, following Abba’s counsel, Austin Avuru settled for Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics and Biology and then English Language, Literature in English, Economics and Geography. If he hadn’t met Abba, Austin Avuru would never have read Physics and mostly probably wouldn’t have toed the science line at all.

By the time he and his friend, Pius Opute sat for their school certificate exams, Solomon Abba was long gone but the seed he had sown in them had germinated and the impact he had on them is best captured by this quote attributed to William Arthur Ward: “The mediocre teacher tells/The good teacher explains/The superior teacher demonstrates/The great teacher inspires.

They were so inspired that they finished with the two best results in their year. Out of 118 students, Austin Avuru and Pius Opute emerged the only ones with Division 1.“After finishing school, the two friends had a few options. Go to university; go for A-levels or teach.“They chose to teach to the chagrin of their former principal, Mr. Demas Akpore. By this time, Demas Akpore had handed over the school he founded to the state government “without collecting a dime” Austin Avuru recalls. After the take-over, Akpore, who would later gain national prominence as Deputy Governor of Bendel state under Ambrose Alli, went to Ughelli as principal of Government College, Ughelli.“He was disappointed that his two best students were choosing to teach instead of gaining more knowledge and preparing for university by going for their A’Levels.

So, that was how the duo applied to become teachers. They were accepted and posted to some primary school near Ughelli. But the new principal, Mr. Ozulu intervened. He went out of his way to change their posting from the primary school they had been posted to by the school management board back to OGS and so, between the two of them, they taught Mathematics, Physics and Biology to students in Classes 3 – 5.

Austin Avuru was just 17 years old.

(Excerpted from A Safe Pair of Hands, The Austin Avuru Biography” by Peju Akande and Toni Kan.)“


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