Although the United Arab Emirates (UAE) education system ranks first among Arab countries, the system as a whole is currently achieving well below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, according to the sixth iteration of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams for reading, science, and mathematics.
Every three years PISA tests 15-year-old students from all over the world to see how well they are mastering key topics for being prepared for potential real-life situations post-secondary school. As part of its Vision 2021 strategy, the UAE has set a goal of being one of the top 20 scoring countries in PISA by 2021, but will need to rise 24 places from its current 44th position (in both science and mathematics). It will need to overtake countries like the US, UK, and France in the process, according to the PISA worldwide rankings.
Not only does Vision 2021 call for the UAE to have a first-rate education system, but it sees this system as supporting the country’s transition to a competitive knowledge economy that promotes innovation, research, and development. This begs the question, what are some strategies the UAE can use to increase students’ achievement in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), as well as inspire and educate them about future careers in those fields?
One option is for the UAE to utilize the children's university approach, which has been gaining traction around the world over the past 15 years. Originating at the University of Tübingen in Germany in 2002, who along with the University of Innsbruck established the program, university lecturers explain complex ideas and use every means available to explain concepts like why our hearts beat and why the stars don’t fall from the sky. There is even a Children’s University Research Day where children can try a wide variety of experiments, with their website highlighting activities such as carving a Stone Age mammoth figure, to treating a “broken” arm at the hospital, and gazing at the stars at the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics.
Traditionally, universities around the world have organized one-off and isolated STEM events targeted at children of various ages. At present, many universities are exploring further steps, such as children’s universities, to create stable and continual platforms for extra-curricular science activities for children to get them interested in the STEM fields at the earliest age possible.
The children’s university approach includes regular events and programs, such as lectures, workshops, fairs, and competitions, held by universities to encourage children’s interests in scientific analysis and research. They promote the importance of science and mathematics, enhance children's scientific and innovation abilities, as well as prepare them for the transition from secondary school to university. To date, over 200 universities and approximately one million children have participated in children’s university initiatives worldwide.
In the Egyptian program, school children from ages nine to 15 are given the chance to meet university professors, be trained in laboratories, and be exposed to university education in a number of fields, including medicine, agriculture, science, arts, education, and computer science. Towards the end of the program, each child is required to work on a scientific research project and the winning project from each department receives a certificate, as well as a monetary prize. The top pupils are also be offered the opportunity to visit other children’s universities around the world.
As a result of ongoing expansion of the children’s universities approach across Europe, the need for exchange of experiences has led to the creation of the European Children's Universities Network, or EUCUNET. Besides offering existing children's universities a platform for the exchange of ideas, know-how and experience, as well as for learning from best-practice examples, EUCUNET provides support and advice for institutions, organizations, and people who are planning children’s university activities. Also, anyone who is interested in science communication to children and teenagers, such as parents and teachers, can obtain information and participate in the network.
Here in the UAE, children’s universities could be set up through partnerships between local schools and universities. As an industrialized emirate, Ras Al Khaimah has the chance to lead the other six emirates in preparing future scientists by launching children universities initiatives.
These Ras Al Khaimah based children’s universities could be expanded across the UAE, joining forces to establish an Emirates children's universities network. The network would play an important role in supporting the quality of STEM education, and bolstering student achievement and future career prospects. A similar network could be launched that services the entirety of the Arab Gulf region, supporting the future of Arab scientists, offering Arabic-language resources and contextualized experiments, promoting local knowledge generation, and inspiring youth to creatively problem solve to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
Dr. Wagdy Sawahel is a Senior Lead Consultant in education, science, technology, innovation, and the knowledge economy. He has published several reports about higher education and science development in University World News, Al-Fanar Media, the London-based Science and Development Network, and Switzerland-based Intellectual Property Watch, amongst others.
*The photo was orginally used in a Khaleej Times article.