Adetola Salau at the commissioning of a new “Internet Of Things Lab” at a public school in Abesan, Nigeria. February 2020. (Photo/Banic Media courtesy of the Lagos State Ministry of Education)

Hands-on experience: Reimagining STEM in Nigeria. And beyond.


When Adetola Salau, GSE PhD student and education aide to Nigerian Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, drives through Lagos, she is inspired to persevere. She gets energy for her own sometimes exhausting daily work, as a graduate student and government official, when she sees young people hanging out on the streets with nothing to do.

Salau, in Lagos, Nigeria, 2021. (Photo/Gabriel Olude)

Her mission: Implement what she believes is the life-changing solution and transform education in Nigeria to reflect the U.S.’s experiential approach to science and math learning. She wants to help shift teaching traditions around memorization to class project work, which she believes helps students cultivate curiosity, self-confidence, understanding and the tools they need to find, and create, meaningful work. 

“The rest of the world has gone to hands-on learning,” Salau said. “It took me going to the States … to see we can do this differently.” 

Months after she enrolled in GSE’s curriculum, instruction and the science of learning online PhD program, Lagos State Commissioner of Education Folasade Adefisayo, who had been reading Salau’s newspaper columns about reform, offered her a job. “She’s a progressive educator,” said Salau of Adefisayo. 

In her role as education aide, Salau launched an initiative called “STEAM UP Lagos,” a program to create afterschool science clubs in more than 50 junior high and high schools with new lab spaces, STEM competitions, teacher training. Its curriculum, which Salau developed, includes activities like fizzy baking soda explosions and investigating trash dump pollution with drones. To help expand the club to the state’s 5,000 public and 20,000 private schools, Salau hopes to elicit financial support from Nigerian businesses and international governments.

Her passion for STEM education comes from her own journey. She was born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents who were earning their PhDs. She was 5 when they returned to Nigeria, where her mother became a university lecturer and the country’s first female meteorologist, and her father was a geography and climate change professor and United Nations diplomat. 

In 1995, when she was 18, Salau settled in the U.S. and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Fordham University and, at Syracuse University, a master’s in chemical engineering. 

Salau then spent a decade teaching middle school and high school math and science in the South Bronx, the Carolinas and California. It was hard, life-changing work that she loved. She built rapport with students by sharing her story about how education led her family to the U.S. “I made connections beyond math,” Salau said. 

She became convinced that the American experiential style of teaching could transform Nigeria’s schools and their reliance on memorization. 

She planned her return to Nigeria, stockpiling outdated textbooks whenever she knew they were going to the dumpster. Eventually, when she was heading to Lagos, she loaded them into her mother’s car before it shipped.

Salau at the grounds of the offices of the British Deputy High Commission in Lagos, with Deputy British High Commissioner Ben Llewellyn-Jones and local students, October 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Deputy British High Commission in Lagos)

In the beginning, she advocated for change by driving 13 hours to the capital Abuja to lobby officials. She then decided a PhD would give her the clout she needed. 

Her graduate work converged with her government work. Opportunities to create change emerged—in her dissertation and with international collaborators.

In the past year, since she began working on state education policy, the work informed her doctoral study and vice versa. She believes foundational change could profoundly impact the state’s 5 million students and, eventually, students nationwide, in all 36 states. 

She surveyed Nigerian teachers about their interest in taking new approaches to teaching math and science as part of her STEM education dissertation research that she is developing with her advisor Noemi Waight, associate professor of learning and instruction. “I have data now saying that this is what they realize and what they want,” said Salau.

To help her research, one of her science education professors, Joseph Engemann, PhD ’00, connected her with the Smithsonian Institution’s Science Education Center. It sponsored virtual training for 10 teachers and policymakers in Lagos last year. Then this spring, she won a place on its inaugural committee, “STEM Education for Sustainable Development and Network for Emergent Socioscientific Thinking,” an international panel collecting new ideas.

Engemann sees promise, for education on both sides of the Atlantic, in Salau’s efforts. “We agree that even in Canada and the U.S., there is poor development of practical work skills in science ... So many teachers lack the instructional capacity,” said Engemann, an adjunct GSE professor. “She is an amazing advocate for excellence in science teaching.”

Once Salau finishes her PhD, they plan to continue to work together to research and publish ideas for improving STEM education, and opportunity, for students. “We need to make them become people who solve their own problems and create and think critically,” said Salau. “I want to see problem-solving. And, I want to see critical thinking become something of the norm.”