ABU DHABI // Emirati students will soon join teams running Nasa space missions in a sign of increased co-operation in science and education between the US and the Muslim world, according to the UAE-based organisation that secured the arrangement.
The US space agency has signed a deal with the Arab Youth Venture Foundation, a non-profit group based in Ras al Khaimah that promotes science, technology, literacy and arts education, agreeing to take up to 12 Emirati university students to work alongside some of its non-astronaut experts. "High-potential Emirati college students are going to be working in a real Nasa team of engineers, scientists, researchers, along with their US peers," said Lisa LaBonté, the chief executive of the foundation. "Our initial programme is geared towards UAE nationals, predominantly engineering or aviation students, whose experience represents a fit for qualifying Nasa missions."
Applications will open on January 1, with the shortlist later vetted by the space agency in time for the programme to start in May. Students who are selected will take part in Nasa projects at Ames Research Centre in California for between two and 10 months. Research will involve the space shuttle and the International Space Station, solar system exploration, deep space programmes, research aircraft and remote sensing.
The foundation is seeking sponsors to cover the cost of the programme, expected to be at least $30,000 (Dh110,000) per student per semester, including cost-of-living expenses and accommodation. Students cannot apply directly to Nasa. US officials welcomed the deal. "This is a superb initiative," said Richard Olson, the US ambassador to the UAE. "It is an opportunity to realise President Obama's call for expanded science and technology partnership with Arab and Muslim communities."
In a joint statement with the foundation, Nasa said the programme would "provide both Arab and US students valuable cultural exposure and experience working with their international counterparts in a team environment". Michael O'Brien, the agency's assistant administrator for external affairs, said the effort would "provide a unique opportunity for US engineering students to work with their peers from the UAE on a variety of programmes".
Ms LaBonté, whose foundation has worked with 20,000 young people in the UAE, said that despite the "keen intuition, extreme creativity and high energy" of Emirati students, many still seemed in need of stimulating projects. "The students we've seen in the engineering communities and colleges and especially in the younger kids aged six and up, there's a strong talent base that really needs to be cultivated and given opportunities that are hands-on and very dynamic," she said.
"We want the programme to be selective so that we can showcase the UAE's best of the best." But academic qualifications were not the only measure of excellence. "Just as vital as the educational focus for us would be the level of enthusiasm, the ability to communicate in English, their work experience to date and their desire to be a part of something this dynamic," she said. Ms LaBonté hopes the programme will result in a "reverse brain drain, or brain gain" for the Middle East, allowing students to nurture potential careers before returning to the country and contributing to its development.
Such educational initiatives also had the potential to improve perceptions of the US in the Muslim world, she said. "President Obama has certainly made it a mandate of his to support science and technological development in the Muslim world, and I do hope this opens the door to relationships that are more positive than they have been in the recent past." Abdulaziz Sager, the chairman and founder of the UAE-based Gulf Research Centre, praised the easing of restrictions on students seeking to study in the US as a "positive step" to improve perceptions of the US in the Muslim world.
"But this alone will not change the perception and mindset," he said. Mr Sager said the US should consider setting up educational centres similar to those of the British Council in Arab countries as a way of reaching out to more people. In addition to the political implications of the venture, professionals in the industry said, the collaboration would bring huge practical benefits to the students.
"I believe the proposed collaboration with Nasa is a truly historic moment," said Joseph Fowler, a spacecraft engineer based in the UAE. "They are at the very pinnacle of space exploration. There is no question in my mind that the students who go to Nasa will firstly be broadened by the experience of working with experienced space professionals, but secondly they will be immersed in the Nasa way of doing things.
"The Emirati students will be able to see how important teamwork is. The training they receive at Nasa could easily be applied to any career back in the UAE. The emphasis on teamwork, process, policy and procedure should see to that." Dr Mohammad al Jarrah, professor and head of mechanical engineering at the American University of Sharjah and the founding director of its mechatronics graduate programme, said he hoped the venture was a precursor to more ambitious scientific efforts in the Arab world.
"It is time to establish a research and development institution similar in scope to Nasa to lead the Arab world to the aerospace world of science and technology," said Dr al Jarrah, who earned his PhD in aeronautical engineering from Stanford University in California. "I know that this is a dream at the moment, but sooner or later we need to make the start." Collaboration with Nasa would allow the development of human resources and expertise to help sustain a burgeoning aerospace industry, he said.
"Genuine Nasa involvement will bring about an accelerated development in the region in the growing regional aerospace industry," he said. "It will make the task of the scientists and engineers working in the region much easier by communicating and sharing their problems and problem solving with experienced Nasa partners. "We need not reinvent the wheel. Getting the appropriate know-how is critical and is invaluable in the long term for the country and the region."