AL DHAID // It is not a place one would expect to see school bus traffic, but a new field study centre an hour east of Dubai will likely draw a stream of yellow convoys to the area.
Ecoventure, which opened yesterday, will give pupils in the UAE an open-air opportunity to study the wadis, mangroves and dunes of the Northern Emirates.
"There's no better way to learn about ecology, to learn about geographic studies, than to actually physically learning about it with your hands and see it yourself," says Matthew Cocks, the general manager of Ecoventure.
The centre is in the desert, just 45 minutes from the mangroves of Umm al Qaiwain and half an hour from the wadis of Fujairah.
The adventure begins on a long dirt track, guarded by grunting camels. Upon arrival, students are taken to dune-side dormitories and laboratories converted from old stables. Every experience is tailored by former teachers for classes from Grade Four and up to meet requirements for International, British and International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum.
"I can almost guarantee that every school in the UAE does a lesson on the camel because a camel is such a part of the UAE's history. But how many kids have actually seen a camel, looked at the size of its feet, looked at its great eyebrows? To be able to see it, you have a better understanding."
Fieldwork is a requirement of many international curriculums, but teachers in the UAE often struggle to find locations for school research projects. Science courses for IB typically require 30 to 60 hours of fieldwork, and those who could afford it used to go overseas to complete their coursework.
Mr Cocks helped with the centre's development after he struggled to find suitable fieldwork projects for his students at Emirates International School, where he taught environmental science.
The closest field study centre to the UAE was Cyprus, a trip Mr Cocks made twice, at a cost of Dh8,000. Other classes travelled as far as the UK.
Today's pupils, a Year Four class from Raffles International School, will have the sticky task of dissecting a blue swimmer crab, giving them a gooey learning experience that goes beyond the pages of an anatomy book.
"The interesting thing about young students is, as long as we can make it real for them, they'll understand what it is," said Mr Cocks. "Those kids are there touching, poking, and feeling that organism in real life as opposed to sitting in a classroom and seeing it on a white board."
Study sites will be rotated to reduce environmental impact.
Pupils will learn about sustainable living through their involvement with daily activities, like composting or working at the site's ghaf tree nursery. A majlis will be built outside the dormitories for henna painting, traditional cooking and storytelling, and volunteer initiatives may be planned with local communities, another IB curriculum requirement.
Pupils have an eclectic crew of leaders.
There is Emma Smart, a biologist who discovered a new breed of wadi fish, Sam Browning, who mushed huskies in Finland, and Kevin Davidson, who brings his geology experience and stories of gold prospecting in the Yukon.
The response from schools has been promising.
"We've met with 30 or 40 schools and you wouldn't believe the number of times we've heard teachers say, 'thank goodness you've come along'," said Mr Browning, the operations manager.
The programme costs about Dh495 per day per student, all inclusive of transport, meals, lessons and lodging. The price is right, said educators.
"Those experiences are priceless," said Peter Milne, environmental education coordinator and a teacher at Raffles International School. "You can stand up and talk about animals in the UAE as much as you want, and they're interested, but they really want to see it for themselves."