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Canadian professors establish a new institute of higher learning to train the next generation of Haitian scientists

Building knowledge to rebuild Haiti.

BY JEAN FRANÇOIS BOUTHILLETTE | APR 09 2014

By mid-May, the first cohort of students at the Institut des sciences, des technologies et des études avancées d’Haïti (ISTEAH) will finish their first year of studies. Since the fall, 61 students on three Haitian campuses – in Cap-Haïtien, Port-au-Prince and Hinche – have benefitted from the teaching and support of foreign professors working at the new school.

“Training these students will help the country get back on its feet and become self-sufficient,” said Samuel Pierre, a Haitian-born professor at École polytechnique de Montréal. He is one of the Canadian academics behind the project, hatched in the wake of the January 2010 earthquake.

“The idea is to give Haitian society the scientific and technological expertise it has often lacked, as well as to stave off the brain drain by training qualified stakeholders on their home soil. There are currently only 150 professors with a PhD teaching at Haitian universities,” Dr. Pierre noted, “compared to 10,000 in Quebec, which has a slightly smaller population.”

Over the next 10 years, the institute plans to train 1,000 scientists who will support Haiti’s development from the inside – a way of preparing the country to free itself, once and for all, from the need for foreign aid.

Canadian undertones

Last fall, students began taking classes toward a doctorate, master’s degree or advanced graduate diploma in education, the first program to be offered at the institution. While the student body is Haitian, the professors stem mainly from Canadian universities, specifically École polytechnique de Montréal and the Université du Québec network, including its distance education component, TÉLUQ, which are partners with ISTEAH.

Professors from other schools have also joined the initiative, including Université Laval, University of Manitoba, McGill University, McMaster University, Université de Montréal, University of Ottawa, Université de Sherbrooke and Wilfrid Laurier University, as well as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States and the Centre national de la recherche scientifique in France. Some will teach on site in Haiti for a few weeks at a time, while others will rely mainly on videoconferencing.

Targeted training

Next year, ISTEAH wants to start training engineers. “Training has to be in line with the country’s real needs, so we did an analysis,” Dr. Pierre explained. “We found there to be an urgent need for computer engineers, and specialists will be trained accordingly.”

Last fall, Ottawa injected close to $500,000 in ISTEAH through the International Development Research Centre, mostly in the form of fellowships and awards.

The IDRC immediately saw value in the project when it was presented in early 2013. “It’s an opportunity to strengthen the quality of research and training in Haitian universities,” said Ann Weston, program director at the IDRC. “It will make the country stronger by giving it the means to analyze its problems and find its own solutions.”

She also sees ISTEAH as an effective way to retain the country’s talent pool. “The advantage,” she noted, “is that the people being trained on home soil can continue working within Haiti’s universities, private sector or public service” and, in doing so, make a real difference.

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