Young scientists' camp proves a winning formula

Month of lectures, practical classes and English lessons at a science summer-school encourage students.

United Arab Emirates - Abu Dhabi - June 29th, 2010:  Students learn the basics of nanotechnology at a summer program by IAT at Khalifa University.  (Galen Clarke/The National)
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ABU DHABI // Kuo-Tang Liao, a researcher from the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, shakes a tiny test tube full of white gel. His pupils watch as the heat from his hand turns the gel purple. This simple experiment with liquid crystals is part of a science summer-school programme for Emirati teenagers, designed to expose them to advanced scientific concepts such as nanostructures.

Mohammed Haisam, 15, points at a big three-dimensional model that represents a large carbon molecule known as a buckyball or, technically, buckminsterfullerene. "We've been doing carbons," he says. Mohammed is one of 60 local teenagers taking part in the programme at the Institute of Applied Technology (IAT), a nationwide network of science and engineering high schools. The boys, from public schools across the emirate, are studying the basics of nanotechnology, robotics, computer science and micro-controllers.

They are also taking intensive English courses as part of the month-long camp. "One of the things that we try to do is encourage our new Grade 10 students to come, because it gives them a head start on their English," says Kenneth Cadd, the principal of the IAT. Pupils from the public school system tend to arrive at the IAT without strong language skills, he says. "For younger boys, it's beneficial to give them an insight into technology because that may encourage them to come to us when they're ready," says Mr Cadd.

The IAT was set up in 2005 to train a generation of Emiratis to work as scientists, engineers and technicians as part of Abu Dhabi's effort to diversify its economy. "We don't learn this stuff in our school," says Al Houssin Abdulla, 15, who attends a public school in Bani Yas. The most exciting part of the programme for Al Houssin has been learning about micro-controllers, something he knew nothing about three weeks ago.

"It's interesting and useful," he says enthusiastically, explaining that the little chips control everything from washing machines to mobile phones. Al Houssin is also happy to have more time to concentrate on learning English. At school in Bani Yas, English lessons are conducted mostly in Arabic, he says. According to Mohammed Haisam, the summer camp is more interesting than school. Next year he will join the IAT.

"In my school, the teacher just talks, talks, talks," Mohammed says, adding that pupils get more out of class when they are not just memorising facts from a textbook. For Emirati pupils, the IAT programme is one of many ways they could spend their summer. This week, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) is sending a group of Emirati teenagers to Japan. Hundreds will take part in another study abroad programme through Adec that sends teenagers to Canada, Ireland, Britain and Australia free of charge. The council also runs a range of other programmes locally, including one that the IAT has a hand in on Yas Island.

Tariq al Nuaimi, one of the pupils in the IAT programme, is also going to Ireland later this summer with Adec. He joined the IAT lessons to prepare for a nanotechnology science fair in Japan that he will atttend in the autumn. "We've learned a lot about nanotechnology," he says. "It really opened our eyes to a new line of career."