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Timbuktu Academy: Mentoring Future Scientists

Because of Diola Bagayoko's (pictured left) expertise in educational theory and physics, his wife thought that he would be the perfect person to help undergraduates, especially African-Americans and other underrepresented minorities at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, start their careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Established in 1990 with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Louisiana Board of Regents, the Timbuktu Academy is an award-winning mentoring program for underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. The program's pre-college to graduate curricula includes the Undergraduate Research Program (URP), which provides students with the educational support they need to succeed in graduate school. Bagayoko, a solid-state physicist and native of Mali, named the academy after the medieval Malian city of Timbuktu, which was renowned for its scholarship.

In the beginning, Timbuktu Academy provided mentoring only for physics undergraduates and a handful of pre-college students, but with the help of additional funding from the Department of the Navy and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), in 1993 the academy added chemistry and engineering majors and 100 to 200 pre-college students. To date, the academy's URP has sent 74 students -- 47 in physics -- to science and engineering graduate programs throughout the country, including the University of Michigan, Stanford, and Cal Tech. Moreover, 19 have earned M.S. degrees and 8 have earned Ph.D.s with many others nearing completion.

Molding Young Minds

Bagayoko received his B.S. in physics and chemistry at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Bamako, in Mali in 1973. While there he also studied educational theory and practice as a part of his general undergraduate education. He received his M.S. in solid state physics in 1978 from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and his Ph.D. in theoretical solid state physics from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1983.

Bagayoko helps a student.

After coming to the U.S. and joining Southern University's Department of Physics, he and academy co-director, Ella Kelley, combed the cognitive, behavioral, and experimental psychology literature to find a systematic-based mentorship model. The result -- what they call "the Rosetta stone of learning" -- is the Power Law of Human Performance by Newel and Rosenbloom (1981; To learn more see "Philosophical Foundations for Systemic Mentoring at the Timbuktu Academy"). "Anytime the individual performs a task, physical or mental, that individual improves at performing said task," says Bagayoko. "Any student who does not suffer from a severe physiological mental impairment can be trained and molded into a researcher."

The academy's undergraduate program has 50 spots available, so incoming Southern University freshmen interested in applying to the program must meet a minimum set of requirements. Besides listing an intention to major in physics, chemistry, or engineering, they must receive a minimum score of 24 on the ACT assessment exam (equivalent to 1090 to 1120 on the SAT). Admission to the URP isn't restricted to freshmen. Students who have completed a year at Southern in the aforementioned majors with at least a 3.0 GPA are also eligible. Once in the program, participants must maintain a 3.0 GPA.

The Academy's Steps to Success

According to Bagayoko, the "Ten-Strand Systemic Mentoring Model" (see box) enables the academy to facilitate superior academic performance, and provides a road map for a successful S&E career.

The Ten-Strand Systemic Mentoring Model

For more information, see the Timbuktu Academy Web site.

  • Financial supportassures students have access to the university and the time available to devote to study and research full-time.

  • Communication skills enhancement provides students with activities to master technical communication skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing).

  • Comprehensive, scientific advisement is mandatory to ensure students take the proper sequence of courses and stay on task with personal goals.

  • Tutoring by faculty members and by peers is to establish excellence by addressing knowledge deficits and solidifying known concepts.

  • Generic research activities teach students how to master various types of literature searches and other research related skills.

  • Specific research project execution occurs in the summer and the academic year at academic, government, and industrial laboratories to prepare students for graduate studies.

  • Immersion in a professional culture demands staying abreast of ethics, the latest data published in technical journals and professional magazines, collaborating with colleagues, and attending conferences and seminars.

  • Enhancement of computer and technological skills encourages the mastery of word-processing, spreadsheets, databases, graphics, programming languages (C++, FORTRAN, etc.), and other applications.

  • Monitoring verifies the progress of students and averts potential problems (i.e., extra tutoring or dropping a course to avoid a bad grade).

  • Guidance to graduate school starts freshman year with GRE preparation, and is the culmination of the URP experience.

  • The Timbuktu Academy is dependent on its mentors to ensure its students meet objectives. Mentor coordinators at Southern identify and manage these mentors, at research institutions across the world, who in turn work to ensure a productive research experience for participating students.

    The Undergraduate Research Program

    Weekly seminars -- given by students, invited guests, and faculty -- are the backbone of the URP and help the students hone their speaking skills. The written assignments, which stress technical writing, help students perfect their scientific writing skills.

    Due to limited resources on campus, URP students are encouraged to do summer research elsewhere. Bagayoko says, "One learns research by doing research. By the time scholars graduate from here, at a minimum, they have had two summer research experiences." But he is quick to point out that most will have three and sometimes four research internships. Likewise, participation in local, state, and national conferences is also required. Participating in conferences is seen as a critical step in immersing oneself in the professional STEM culture by introducing students to new research, ideas, networking opportunities, and current developments within the field.

    Timbuktu Academy students attending seminar.

    Yielding Results

    The Timbuktu Academy method has yielded impressive results. Between 1994 and 2001, URP students attended and presented at 54 national conferences. They regularly secure summer internships at prominent institutions like the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, Johnson & Johnson, and Argonne National Laboratory. Several students have published papers in scientific journals with their off-campus summer mentors.

    The academy's success has been recognized. In 2002, the Academy won the U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering. Six years earlier, in 1996, Bagayoko received the U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Mentoring. But an even better indication of the program's success is that programs are lining up to copy the Timbuktu Academy model. Since 1995, ten Louisiana campuses have modeled similar programs on the URP with funding from the Louis Stokes Louisiana Alliance for Minority Participation (LS-LAMP). Jeremiah Gray, a postdoc at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro and a 1999 URP graduate, has contacted Bagayoko about replicating the Academy system there. The academy will soon implement two new programs -- the "Freshman Experience at Southern University" (for all incoming freshmen) and a preparation program for the Naval ROTC -- to further the goals of the Academy.

    Ultimately, the academy's Undergraduate Research Program's success is because Bagayoko knows what it means to be a mentor. "To mentor properly does not mean to clone yourself," he says. "It means to inform, to support, to challenge a student, to monitor, to make sure things are well. But it also means making a student enter into functional networks," he continues. These networks include researchers on other campuses, student groups, and professional organizations. "I go to great lengths to make sure I'm not turning all of them into solid state theorists."

    Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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