A new physics degree will offer students direct access to the UAE’s burgeoning space programme to boost their interest and ready them for the final frontier of science.
The four-year course at American University of Sharjah will offer practical, hands-on training and also internships at the UAE Space Agency and the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.
It also aims to help with the Emirates Mars Mission slated for 2020.
The bachelor of science is only the fourth degree in physics to be offered by a higher institution in the country and signals how important science has become as the UAE tries to shift to a knowledge-based economy.
“It offers highly-specialised learning that has direct applications in real life. It’s very exciting and very interesting,” said Dr Mahmoud Anabtawi, dean of the college of arts and sciences.
The type of work could be conducted in the laboratories and on the ground in the space centre. Students would be working across astronomy and astro-physics analysing images of galaxies and stars.
They also potentially would work developing satellites. AUS has already participated in the development of Nayif-1, the UAE's first nanosatellite.
The establishment of the degree comes in response to the growing demand in the GCC for professionals in clean-energy technology, geoscience, meteorology and nano-technology. But also because of the UAE’s fast-developing space programme, which AUS is already closely involved with.
The Minister of State for Advanced Sciences and Emirates Mars Mission science team leader, Sarah Al Amiri, is a graduate. Three faculty members sit on the highly-specialised UAE Mars Mission science team and have been working to ensure the Amal probe will reach Mars by 2021, while several graduates are based at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC).
“I’m very confident that with the launch of the bachelor, we will soon be seeing an even greater presence of AUS at the space centre,” said Dr Anabtawi, who was born in Jordan but moved to the United States and completed postgraduate studies at the University of Texas.
The degree will also offer students to the chance to take some liberal arts courses such as philosophy and English literature. The first batch will enrol this autumn and it’s expected the initial intake will be about 15.
AUS is a diverse campus with more than a 100 nationalities represented. According to the Times Higher Education rankings, it is the university with the highest percentage of international students. But it's expected that Emirati students will be among the 15 because of the interest from the Government.
“It’s very important for us to have UAE Nationals,” said Dr Anabtawi, who has been at AUS since 2002. “I think we will have Emiratis in that first intake. Already there are some interested. As one of the main universities in the UAE, we want to contribute to the growth of the knowledge-based economy and be at the forefront of scientific endeavour here.”
The MBRSC is also interested in sending students to study for new degree.
“They expressed interest in sending students to major in physics here. The space programme has helped to drive the attraction of these degrees.”
While it's intended that classes will be small, one of the challenges is attracting students to these types of degrees. In an interview with The National in April, Professor David Sheehan of Khalifa University said the challenge was a cultural and marketing one. And it's the same for AUS. Only five or six students enroll in AUS's maths degree every year. And for Dr Anabtawi the main factor is the culture in the Arab World. "Many parents want their children to be engineers, physicians or lawyers. And it's related to income," he said.
“Most think physics graduates will end up as a high-school teacher. And there’s nothing wrong with high-school teachers. They are great people. But in terms of income, parents in the Arab world push their kids into those other roles for career, pay and social status.”
The Arab world was once a pioneer in maths, physics and astronomy and universities have a role in revitalising these vital disciplines. Dr Anabtawi believes that things are slowly starting to change.
Twenty years ago, the UAE did not have degree programmes in maths, physics or biology. But now there are four alone in physics. Dr Anabtawi was previously head of the maths department at AUS and there introduced the first masters in maths in the UAE. Many major companies such as Apple are now looking for people with these skills alongside some background in liberal arts.
“We are seeing a shift,” he said. “The UAE is embracing basic and natural sciences and bringing back interest in this. There is a realisation of the need to have many qualified people in these areas.”
AUS was founded in 1997 by Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah. It was ranked 12 in the Times Higher Education's Arab World University Rankings 2018.