Region encourages take-up of sciences

22 February 2015

Universities in the GCC are working with pupils and teachers to promote the study of science, technology, engineering and maths to fit the local job market

The need for economic diversity has been highlighted in recent months as the effects of the low oil price permeate through oil-exporting nations. In mid-February, US ratings agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P) downgraded the credit ratings of Bahrain and Oman, and although Saudi Arabia retained its AA-/A-1+ rating, the kingdom’s outlook was revised to negative based on S&P’s assumption that oil prices would average $55 a barrel in 2015.

Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that universities and governments are working hard to encourage students on to courses that will enable future economic diversification.

New skills

“Growth in the region will require new knowledge and skills to support sustainable economic development,” says Kevin Mitchell, interim provost at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) in the UAE. “There is still a challenge attracting students to non-traditional fields. For example, there will certainly be an increased demand for individuals with expertise in areas such as environmental sciences, industrial engineering, international relations, mathematics and actuarial sciences, finance and economics.”

Every year, says Mitchell, the AUS student recruitment team meets with thousands of senior high school pupils in the UAE and overseas to give them information about regional demand for jobs, employment opportunities and trends. In addition, the university is in its fourth year of an initiative called ‘Sharakah’, which sees it partner with leading UAE high schools.

“One of the objectives of this initiative is to support and train high school teachers and administrative staff on how to prepare their students for challenging college experiences,” says Mitchell. “We also work together to inform students and parents of the importance of selecting appropriate majors for their university studies. Enrolment numbers show that our efforts have been successful. However, we believe there is still more to achieve in the near future.”

School links

Other universities also report strong links with schools. Texas A&M University in Qatar, for example, works with local schools, teachers and students through enrichment programmes designed to ensure entrants have the maths and science skills needed to undertake engineering courses at university level.

“We are working with schools to put young Qataris on educational pathways for science, technology, engineering and maths [STEM],” says Hamid Parsaei, director for academic outreach at the university. “Those are the disciplines that will lead Qatar’s knowledge-based economy, and we are eager to stimulate interest and learning in those areas.”

Key fact

Corporate scholarships are common, particularly from state-owned firms such as Aramco

Source: MEED

Through a series of one-day programmes called Young Engineers and Scientists, bilingual faculty and technical staff undertake hands-on activities with students, such as building towers or bridges to teach principles of science, engineering and design. “The students have fun while learning about science and engineering from the perspective of ordinary, everyday design challenges,” says Parsaei.

Academic programmes

For mid-level students in grades seven to nine, the university hosts a three-day Engineering Explorers programme, which covers more advanced topics and includes a mix of lectures and activities. “They work in teams and compete on projects that demonstrate their understanding of how to apply science towards solving engineering problems,” says Parsaei.

The Future Engineers programme for students in grades 10 and 11 is more detailed. Originally run over five days, it has recently been extended to eight. “The initiative comprises sophisticated design activities because the students are more mature and can absorb more material to learn about what it takes to become an engineer,” says Parsaei.

Supplementary to these outreach schemes, the university also works with maths, science and technology teachers to ensure they are aware of the best teaching methods for engineering principles.

“We created a competition to identify and award Qatar’s STEM educator of the year,” says Parsaei. “We asked schools to nominate their best maths and science teachers, and the inaugural winner was supported to attend the American Society for Engineering Education conference in Indianapolis in the US in June 2014.” The 2015 winner will be named in April.

Research programmes

Looking ahead, the university is launching a new academic journal to publish and promote research on engineering education, and it plans to increase student numbers in its workshops. It is also launching a two-week Summer Engineering Academy for 20 students entering 12th grade to work with faculty members on active research programmes in five key areas: renewable power; environment and water; gas processing; cyber security; and control informatics.

“This programme is designed to engage bright young Qataris in hands-on research with faculty members,” says Parsaei. “All of the research areas are directly related to Qatar’s development goals and strategic priorities, and the brightest young people can get an early start on their engineering education by participating in research towards addressing Qatar’s grand challenges for engineering.”

Medicine skills

Medicine is another key area where GCC states want to grow their skills base. Weill Cornell Medical College Qatar (WCMC-Q) has an active outreach programme to encourage young Qataris into a medical career. More than 300 students a year apply for their summer and winter enrichment programmes known as the Qatar Medical Explorer Programme and the Precollege Enrichment Programme.

“These programmes provide students with the opportunity to attend pre-medical and medical classes, get hands-on experience in the labs and prepare for college admission,” says Noha Saleh, director of student recruitment and outreach at WCMC-Q.

The university also has a scholarship competition aimed at local high school students. Launched in 2008, the Doctor of the Future scholarship now awards four places every year.
Like AUS and Texas A&M, WCMC-Q works closely with local schools to support both teachers and students. Its one-year Adopt a School programme currently sees it partner with five schools to provide curriculum support, teacher training, and workshops to students seen as having high potential. “As part of the programme, faculty members serve on school boards, attend meetings with schools and teachers, and offer talks to students to motivate them to pursue medicine,” says Saleh.

Community outreach

Alongside this, the student recruitment and outreach team visits an average of 40 schools a year and hosts between 16 and 20 open days on the campus. Regionally, the office visits another 30 schools in Abu Dhabi, Al-Ain, Amman, Bahrain, Dubai, Jeddah, Kuwait, Oman and Sharjah. At the same time, the university hosts a community outreach event where visitors can take part in interactive demonstrations using models and simulations to describe key scientific principles and present anatomical features of structures such as the heart, eyes and skeleton. Between 400 and 600 people attend the event every year.

The latest initiative from WCMC-Q is the Qatar Aspiring Doctors Programme, which began this year and is designed to prepare students for the requirements of pre-medical or foundation courses. “Twenty-three students are currently enrolled in this pilot programme, which offers module-based online courses to improve the students’ performance mainly in biology, chemistry, English and research skills,” says Saleh. “The programme also provides hands-on science activities, e-library access and support from our faculty and staff.”

Saudi scholarship

That so much is happening in terms of outreach is commendable, but perhaps not surprising given the competitive nature of the education market in a region where bright students often go overseas to study. Saudi Arabia in particular is estimated to have sent more than 150,000 students to international universities under the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP), which allows study in fields critical to future growth in the kingdom, such as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering and computing.

By far the most popular destination for Saudi students is the US, which, during the 2013/14 academic year had 53,919 students in residence. Half were on undergraduate programmes and 21 per cent on postgraduate courses. The other 29 per cent were undertaking other non-degree courses. Overall, there are more than 100,000 Saudi students in the US at the moment, including those not on the scholarship programme.

This number has soared since the KASP programme was introduced in 2005 with the aim of sending 15,000 students overseas for higher study. The programme is now on its 11th wave, which will see 10,467 more students travel abroad to learn.

Corporate scholarships

Corporate scholarships are common too, particularly from state-owned companies such as Saudi Aramcoand Qatar Petroleum (QP). In December, QP hosted a ceremony for 140 Qatari students who had completed masters’ degrees, bachelors’ degrees and other technical courses.

“QP attaches a great deal of importance to developing and attracting Qatari youth, and seeks through its strategic plans for education in prestigious universities, higher institutes and specialised training centres in Qatar and abroad to empower and employ a well-qualified and competent Qatari cadre of both genders in various disciplines, particularly in the oil and gas sector,” said Saad Sherida al-Kaabi, president and CEO of QP, at the ceremony.

More choice

For young people, then, there is no shortage of opportunities and support for further education, particularly when it comes to pursuing STEM subjects. The use of academic bridge programmes designed to get local students up to the required competence levels in core subjects is also becoming more common.

It seems that universities are working hard to attract local students to their courses and are reporting increasing numbers of participants in their summer workshops, open days and other schemes. Partnerships with schools are increasing too, strengthening teaching capability in STEM subjects while also creating familiarity and interest among students. These, coupled with corporate support for degree programmes and other scholarships, mean the region’s brightest students are being given more opportunities than ever to take up the subjects that GCC states need if they are to achieve true economic diversity in the future.

Top Arab universities, 2014-15*
1King Fahd University of Petroleum & MineralsSaudi Arabia
2American University of Beirut Lebanon
3King Saud UniversitySaudi Arabia
4American University in CairoEgypt
5King Abdulaziz University Saudi Arabia
6UAE UniversityUAE
7American University of SharjahUAE
8University of JordanJordan
9Cairo UniversityEgypt
10Jordan University of Science and TechnologyJordan
11Alexandria University Egypt
12Universite Saint-Joseph De BeyrouthLebanon
13Ain Shams University Egypt
14Lebanese American UniversityLebanon
15University of SharjahUAE
16Qatar UniversityQatar
17American University in DubaiUAE
18King Faisal UniversitySaudi Arabia
19Umm al-Qura UniversitySaudi Arabia
20Khalifa UniversityUAE
21Sultan Qaboos UniversityOman
22King Khalid UniversitySaudi Arabia
23Zayed UniversityUAE
24University of BalamandLebanon
25Abu Dhabi UniversityUAE
26University of BaghdadIraq
27Lebanese UniversityLebanon
28Al-Imam Mohamed Ibn Saud Islamic UniversitySaudi Arabia
29Yarmouk UniversityJordan
30Arabian Gulf UniversityBahrain
31Kuwait UniversityKuwait
32Higher Colleges of TechnologyUAE
33Mansoura UniversityEgypt
34Al-Azhar University Egypt
35Beirut Arab University Lebanon
36University of MosulIraq
  37=Assyut University Egypt
  37=University of BabylonIraq
39University of KhartoumSudan
40Universite De Tunis el-ManarTunisia
41Petra UniversityJordan
42Alfaisal UniversitySaudi Arabia
43Prince Sultan UniversitySaudi Arabia
44Zagazig UniversityEgypt
45Al-Nahrain UniversityIraq
46University of DubaiUAE
47Ajman University of Science & TechnologyUAE
48University of BahrainBahrain
49Hashemite UniversityJordan
50Princess Sumaya University for TechnologyJordan
*=According to QS Quacquarelli Symonds. Source: QS Quacquarelli Symonds

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