ABU DHABI // A lack of English preparation and poor teaching are turning Emirati schoolchildren off science and technology, a new study has found.
Unless both are improved, the study's author warns, emerging industries such as nuclear and semiconductor plants will face a severe shortage of skilled staff.
Sohailah Makhmasi, a master's engineering student at Khalifa University, questioned 1,000 private and government school and university students, including Emiratis and expatriates.
"We have a problem," said Ms Makhmasi. "Right now the number of students choosing science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is less than half those choosing arts.
"Last year, for every student that chose to follow a science career path, three chose to follow an arts-related career path. If this doesn't change, it will be a problem for the UAE. We want to become an exporting country not an importing one."
English was a particular problem for students in government schools, she said. "Private school students do not have any issue with English proficiency while the majority of public school students suffer from low English skills."
That in turn makes it all but impossible to take a degree in science or technology subjects, which require more English than courses such as business or the arts.
"At many institutions such as the Petroleum Institute, the students will stay in a foundation [remedial English] programme for the maximum of two years and still not make it, which makes them very depressed and feel a failure."
The Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) has long acknowledged the problem. To reverse the trend, in 2010 it launched its New School Model based on bilingual teaching to better prepare students for university. By 2015 all pupils in the capital's government schools will be taught science and maths in English.
Kenneth Cadd, head of the Institute of Applied Technology in Abu Dhabi, said many pupils opt out of the sciences because of a "laid back attitude to education".
"At around Grade 8 or 9 there should be guidance for pupils to highlight the benefits of science-based programmes," he said.
Schools needed to be pushed to promote science subjects, he said. "Schools should run 50 per cent art programmes and 50 per cent science programmes. And if they do not, then their funding should be reduced."
Many students complained to Ms Makhmasi about uninspiring, poorly qualified teachers. As a consequence - and echoing previous studies - Ms Makhmasi found that three times more students take arts subjects than study science.
Prof Tod Laursen, president of Khalifa University, agreed that the biggest issue for schools was improving the pool of teachers, adding: "In time I hope we can help contribute to that."
For their part, many teachers lacked motivation. "They spoke of a lack of professional development," said Ms Makhmasi. Teachers also complained to her about job dissatisfaction, blaming class sizes and low salaries.
"They also complained about the changes to the curriculum that were happening almost every year, which is very hard for them to manage."
Ms Makhmasi will be taking the results of her study to share at the upcoming Frontiers in Education Conference in Seattle, Washington, next month.