The physics whizz with an eye on MIT

For Mana Khalid, the first day back at school in Dubai signifies the start of "the most important year" of his student life.

Mana Khalid, right, with a friend on the first day of classes at Mohammed bin Rashid Model School.
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DUBAI // For Mana Khalid, the first day back at Mohammed bin Rashid Model School yesterday signified the start of "the most important year in his student life". The diligent Grade 12 student who lives in Al Barsha, Dubai, with his family, is hoping to gain a place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when he graduates.

But he knows he needs to excel in his final year at the all-boys school to get there - even if he did spend two months travelling around the world winning physics awards last year. "If I studied two hours last year, now I have to study for four hours," he said. "I must ask a lot of questions to the teachers, even outside of class. I must decrease the amount of fun time at the malls because this is the most important year of my life.

"I want to be a nuclear engineer, and so I am thinking of MIT," he said during a break between his first lessons yesterday. School was meant to begin last Wednesday, but was delayed by a week as the teaching staff awaited books and educational material from the authorities. The headmaster, Mohammad Hassan, who has led the school for 24 years, says it is in need of 13 more teachers to facilitate its work. "The Ministry of Education should supply them," he said, adding his school does not focus solely on the academic achievements of its pupils but also on developing their character and confidence.

By 7.30am Mana and his 26 classmates were seated in Room One at the school in Al Jafiliya. Mana is a high achiever, having managed to gain a 96 per cent score last year despite missing classes to attend academic competitions overseas. His parents are very supportive, he said, adding that his father "advises me all of the time, even in the hour before I came to school today he was telling me just to do my best."

Yesterday, almost all of the students - including Mana - were wearing national dress, but throughout the day tailors took the measurements of pupils to prepare new uniforms for them. They are expected to be ready in the next week or so. In the cream-painted classroom where Mana and his classmates studied yesterday, they spent the first hour taking turns at a whiteboard in front of the class trying to answer an Arabic grammar quiz, which Mana said was "kind of hard".

At 9am, a breakfast of juice, water, an apple, zaatar and bread was served to the students in white polystyrene cartons. The break signalled a chance for friends from other classes to wander in and greet each other and the teacher following Eid al Fitr. Badir Ali, also in Grade 12, was attending his first day at a new school. He moved here because the school has a good reputation - former students include UAE ministers. And he already had friends at the school.

"It's a big year," he said as he greeted fellow Grade 12 students in Mana's class. "It's the last year, it's an important year. We will work harder than last year. It's very important to pass. My parents have been advising me about its importance for the past three years." Badir wants to go the United Arab Emirates University to study business. "I don't know exactly what I want to do but I know I want to stay in the UAE - it's my country."

Then it was on to English class. During the school holiday, the school has spent Dh120,000 revamping its English language library and its approach to Grade 12 language studies to support students' impending transition to English-language universities. "This year is something different," said Jamal Zebdeh, the school's head of staff and English language. "We have bought storybooks which you can read and then communicate with your teachers [about]. They will ask you about your thoughts on what you have read. There will be various exercises: some test vocabulary, some test grammar and others will ask you to summarise."

Mr Zebdeh then took the class through the outline of a thesis statement and the structure of essays - something he said the students would become accustomed to writing this year as preparation for university life. After another short break, students were asked to give short oral presentations - in English - about their holidays. "We had a great chance to have vacation during Ramadan, so we could read the Quran," Mana told the class. "It was a great holiday but we are nervous because this is the last year. Everybody is talking about it in a bad way but we should not be scared. Just be yourself."