“When something is important enough,
you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.”
~ Elon Musk
A Netflix Original film premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is based on the true story of William Kamkwamba who lived in Malawi during the early 2000s. At this time, the country experienced a drought that caused farmers’ crops to fail and led to a widespread famine. Within five months Malawians started to die. William’s family were also farmers, raising corn, and were equally affected by the drought. To conserve their limited food supply, they ate only one meal a day.
While William’s family did not have much money, they valued the importance of education and sent him to secondary school. This was a luxury and students were required to pay tuition to attend. When the famine came, William’s father could no longer afford to pay his tuition, so William was forced to drop out. Before this, William showed curiosity and interest in electronics. He started fixing broken radios throughout his village. After he dropped out from school, he started helping his father again in the fields. However, without water or a way to irrigate the crops, there was little hope of their survival. William knew how fortunate he was to be able to attend school and was determined to continue his education. He went to a library and began reading science and physics books. He was unable to read English well, so he looked at diagrams to figure out the explanations. One book called, Using Energy, explained how a windmill could be used to pump water and generate electricity. Armed with this knowledge, William focused on saving his family and village.
As with any new idea, William faced mounting criticism and doubt from neighbors and even his own family. They could not understand how this proposed contraption could save them from what they believed was their impending demise. However, William was undeterred in his efforts and went in search of parts in a local scrap yard. He found a tractor fan, shock absorber, bicycle frame, PVC pipe, and a bicycle generator. Some of the PVC pipe he melted down to form fan blades. Slowly and carefully, he constructed the first windmill to begin pumping water into the fields. He then built a second windmill to provide electricity.
William knew in his heart that he had found a life changing solution. He did not let the disbelief of others stand in the way of his efforts. He refused to accept the future that lay before him and knew there had to be a better way. In the movie, while the opposition he faced came primarily from his father, we can only imagine what people throughout the village must have thought. They were in a remote village struggling to find enough food for even one meal while a fourteen year old boy was determined to spend his time building a structure out of useless scraps that could potentially save their lives. As humans, it is easier for us to doubt than to believe in the possibility of the unknown. It is the story of innovation.
Across higher education, we hear states commenting on the declining in-state enrollment as students leave to attend out of state institutions, we hear employers describing the difficulties of finding qualified employees, and we hear students struggling to find quality, affordable education options that fit their busy lifestyle. However, as innovative models test the traditions of higher education, with every possibility institutions hear doubts that turn into “it cannot be done.” As with every industry which does not keep up with change and cannot adjust to meet the needs of the population they serve, higher education could find itself in a position where academic famine becomes the future. Just because something has always been done one way, does not mean that it continues to be the right or only way. Solutions are as varied as the problems they are designed to solve. Higher education needs advocates who believe in preserving academic quality but can see the possibilities of educational options that are offered in new ways to better meet the needs of a changing student population in an increasingly technology-driven world. We need to embrace the winds of change.
“After I dropped out from school, I went to library and I read a book titled “Using Energy”
and I get information about windmill and I try and I made it.”
~ William Kamkwamba
Will we embrace higher education innovation or succumb to an academic famine?