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Pupils at The Glenelg School of Abu Dhabi studying in labs.
Pupils at The Glenelg School of Abu Dhabi studying in labs.

Meet the engineers of tomorrow

Hopes are high that a new school that has opened in Abu Dhabi will send a stream of science-trained young people into the world of oil.

ABU DHABI // The UAE oil industry is wrestling with a serious challenge: how to find the talent to address a desperate shortage of home-grown engineers.

How big is the problem? The Petroleum Institute and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) say the industry needs six or seven times the present number of engineering graduates. The oil industry's solution, at least in the long term, may lie in a school with a rigorous science curriculum that has just opened in the capital. Glenelg School will groom its pupils from as young as 10 for engineering, preparing them to go directly to the Petroleum Institute then into jobs at Adnoc.

But despite the oil industry's hopes that the school will produce a steady flow of pupils to be refined into oil engineers, the new graduates will not necessarily enter the world of oil: they will have been equipped to train for a wide variety of engineering jobs. Glenelg is one of the more expensive schools in the city, with annual fees starting at Dh29,000 (US$7,900) and going up to Dh36,000. Yet despite the cost of an education there, some parents have eagerly transferred their children to the new institution.

Its selling points are strong. In addition to a shared name, the school has strong academic ties with Glenelg Country School, a private institution in Howard County, Maryland, near Washington, DC. Pupils who make the grade in the Abu Dhabi school's demanding programme will be offered scholarships to study at the Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's engineering school. From there, they will be guaranteed at least one year's employment at Adnoc.

It is hoped that around 90 per cent of pupils graduating from Glenelg will go on to study at the prestigious engineering school. Glenelg opened with 500 pupils but could take up to 1,000. Its administrators say the pupils will be carefully guided towards the disciplines of science and engineering, with the school's advanced laboratories playing a central role in the making of future scientists. The headmistress, Rashida Nachef, explained that Adnoc, as manager of the school, had guided the development of the syllabus.

Both the male and female campuses have seven laboratories, four IT labs, a communications centre for teaching video conferencing and multimedia skills, and a recording studio. Pupils will be shown how engineering relates to many issues and areas of society, such as the environment, via lectures and career guidance through their school years. As the pupils walk the long corridors laden with hardback books on subjects such as calculus, trigonometry and physics, they know discipline is instilled from the start but they are, as the headmistress says, "good children" who value education. The school's multi-million-dollar amenities, including sports facilities, will also emphasise personal workplace skills, such as teamwork, timekeeping, goal-setting and self-discipline.

Dr Michael Ohadi, the provost and interim president of the Petroleum Institute and a member of the Glenelg school board, said: "The school will start to reach out to the children as young as sixth grade [age 10], helping them develop a respect for science and engineering." He says that the key to the project's success is creating in the pupils a sense of affinity with the subject. It was time to finally launch an "industry specific school", he said.

With a wealth of jobs available, science and engineering graduates are among the best paid in the country. "It's very difficult to imagine you'll be out of a job if you have a job in science or engineering," said Dr Ohadi. Many parents are keen to secure their children's future from an early age. Adel Malas, who has been in the UAE for 25 years, has switched three of his four children to the school, paying more than three times the previous fees but with their futures in mind.

Education here is "a business", he says, and looking to their university education is always at the back of his mind. He hopes that by sending the children, aged 13, 15 and 16, to Glenelg, they will be on a path to almost guaranteed jobs within Adnoc. It is a condition of the Petroleum Institute's scholarship that pupils work for Adnoc for their first year of graduation. At the Malas children's previous school, Al Salam, it cost just Dh38,000 annually, including bus travel, books and uniforms, for all three teenagers to go to school.

The three children's schooling will now cost a total of Dh120,000. At Glenelg, "their standard of education is much higher", he says "and when they reach the Petroleum Institute, they will not struggle like children from other lower-performing schools do." Dr Ohadi says the country is in desperate need of engineers, particularly Emirati engineers, across all the sectors, from electrical to petroleum.

Sixty-four per cent of the UAE's graduates go into business, and only 23 per cent go into science or engineering. "The Petroleum Institute has 120 graduates each year, but Adnoc needs 600 or 700. "Other industries come to us looking for graduates, but we just don't have the pupils to give them." That is why the institute helped to establish the school, which offers an international curriculum plus Arabic and Islamic studies.

The children are sent to the school in the hope that they will do well in engineering. But what if they have other interests by the time they leave? "If the children want to pursue sport or music, we will always encourage them," says the headmistress. "We don't expect that 100 per cent of the children will come" to the Petroleum Institute, Dr Ohadi said, "but over time, we'd like to see those numbers reach 80 to 90 per cent, as long as we do our job right and the children reach their target grades."

He acknowledges that the programme at Glenelg deters many local pupils, who he says "do not like failure" on what he calls a "tough" course. "They want guaranteed success and a guaranteed high GPA, but only 10 to 15 per cent achieve an A grade here. The standards are very high. It's challenging to get pupils here." He is aware that it will take another 10 to 20 years before the school, which is near Maqta Bridge, will be a key player in providing the country's future engineers and "petroleum kids".

The first Glenelg graduates to attend the Petroleum Institute will do so in September 2010. Dr Ohadi also hopes that the school will help to increase the numbers of female engineers. Currently they account for 25 per cent of the graduates, already high compared with countries such as the US, but he hopes this will be yet higher over the coming years. Glenelg's headmistress says engineering is no longer seen as a "male job" among girls at the school.

The school is already at 50 per cent capacity in spite of only being in its first year for children in grades six to 12. mswan@thenational.ae

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