Lean and Local Technician Training
As the West African coordinator for the BHEARD program, I am a passionate advocate for local capacity development at costs that can be sustained by local organizations when USAID programs end. BHEARD, the Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development is a human and institutional capacity development program sponsored by USAID and implemented by Michigan State University. The program, which is coming to an end soon, provided Fellowships for training agricultural scientists and other food security professionals at the MS and PhD levels in Africa and beyond. The program sponsored some small organizational capacity development and training efforts as well.
One such effort took place in Ghana and was dedicated to laboratory technician training. There were a number of unique features about this program, but why is it being highlighted during this month of blogs about inclusive development? Inclusion can mean many things, and BHEARD had been hearing that the junior levels of agricultural and science workers had been consistently overlooked in training and professional development opportunities.
3 Inclusive Elements of the Program
- Investment in Technicians. Most agriculture and science training sponsored by USAID is at the graduate level, yet technicians do most of the actual hands-on, day-to-day scientific work. Thus, investing in technicians’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes can translate into better science rapidly.
- Consultant-Led Input from Technicians. A local Ghanaian consultant was hired to visit a number of research sites in Ghana and hear from all stakeholders what they thought was really needed in terms of professional development for technicians. This consultant interviewed technicians, their supervisors, senior scientists, institute directors, and faculty members to get a broad range of perspectives. Topics for the workshops were determined by the technicians themselves as areas where they felt they needed greater skill in order to serve their organizations. We also reached out to the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) network to help get the word out and recruit women into the workshops. We were able to achieve a gender representation that roughly reflected the gender balance in the profession (approximately one-third female) at that time.
- Blend of Workplaces. Finally, the last inclusive element was the blend of workplaces. Technicians from both the public and private sectors were invited, across all research domains, agriculture, health, education, etc. People who would normally not interact in the workplace were able to come together, connect, share ideas, and voice concerns.
The program itself had two foci, a scientific and technical focus with an emphasis on hands-on learning and a professional development focus, with an emphasis on functional skills (e.g. communication, scientific integrity, and leadership). There were two workshops in the program. The first one took place in Kumasi hosted by the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, with a scientific focus on analytical biochemistry. The second one took place in Accra, hosted by the University of Ghana and the West African Center for Crop Improvement, with a scientific focus on molecular biology. The soft skills part was the same in both cases and included elements around collaborating with and servicing private sector clients.
What made this program unique, as well as lean and local?
- Cost Effective. The program was very cost-effective. Two workshops for 25 people each were hosted at a cost of approximately $32,000, including lodging and food for those coming from more distant parts of the country. This was possible due to using leveraging local assets as much as possible. Facilitators and resource people were recruited from among USAID-funded programs and local grad students who volunteered their time. Two local institutions allowed us to use the laboratory spaces for the workshops during their vacation periods. A few US-based volunteer facilitators covered their own costs to come for the workshop, as they were eager to engage with local collaborators and meet new colleagues. Donations of equipment and reagents were solicited from local private sector entities. Finally, each participant was charged a small fee for the week-long course (approximately $50 at the prevailing exchange). Interestingly, about one-third of the participants assumed the cost of the workshop themselves. These funds were later distributed to attendees to run local science programs for schools in their locality or repeat elements of the workshop for colleagues in their own workplaces.
- Interactive. There was very little lecturing, just enough to motivate the experiments, both workshops were entirely hands-on for the technical part. Participants worked both individually and in small groups. In fact, one thing that all the participants really liked and commented on extensively in the final participant survey was how much they appreciated the opportunity to get practical training by doing things themselves. Many workshops in Ghana provide only demos or describe techniques abstractly, due to the high costs of equipment and reagents. Our workshops, however, used Do-It-Yourself equipment that we purchased at very low cost. This enabled us to share the pieces of equipment and reagents with participants to take back with them to continue learning in their own labs and sharing the learning with colleagues. Another valuable element participants enjoyed was active recruitment of PhD facilitators who had started their scientific careers as lab technicians. They served as inspiring role models for the technicians, many of whom aspire to additional science training in the future.
- Connection. The participants formed a network for information sharing and continued learning. At each workshop, at least one social media platform was created for participants to stay in touch. Unlike many platforms that become dormant shortly after the end of a workshop, the Ghana Techs platform is still very active to this day, nearly four years after the first workshop. Participants, facilitators, and resource people are still asking and answering technical questions, posting jobs and training opportunities, and generally sharing useful information and celebrating successes. Some of the technicians have indeed been able to move on to Master’s level training; but with their experience as techs, they will be better senior scientists and supervisors to the next generation of technicians. Branching out to include technicians in the training portfolio will have ripple effects for a number of years to come.
In summary, it is possible to provide interesting and valuable training experiences and professional development on a low budget for all levels in the scientific workforce. By tapping local talent and volunteer facilitators, working with local institutions, enlisting the help of local businesses, looking for the lean option, focusing on what is most important, and just a little out of the box thinking, it can definitely be done. Nearly all the technicians in our program rated it as an extremely or a very valuable component of their professional development. They are still asking for more workshops.