x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Is a new golden age of science within touching distance?

Put science at the forefront of the curriculum in the UAE and it could usher in a new "golden age" of learning.

When I was a child my parents took me to Sharjah Science Museum and I remember being really fascinated by the exhibitions and interactive displays. They stimulated my curiosity about the world around me. I also had the chance to learn about outer space, including the solar system, the location of the stars and planets, their orbits and their names in both Arabic and English.

Reading about the forthcoming Abu Dhabi Science Festival brought back a lot of old and happy memories.

The festival aims to trigger a love of science in UAE children and teenagers. The 10-day event in November, organised by the Technology Development Committee and the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), will host many exhibitions and activities, such as games, shows and interactive displays in the capital and different parts of the emirates.

Abu Dhabi also hosted Expo Sciences International 2013 earlier this month, welcoming young talents from 58 countries.

More than 100 projects by 380 students from the UAE were put on display and pupils had the chance to network with their international peers.

I think events like these create a good opportunity to engage young people in science in an educational and entertaining way and build the community’s interest in the subject.

Parents should make an effort to take their children to such events, talk to them about the importance of science and explore their potential in this field.

Pupils should also be introduced to the importance of science-based programmes at a very young age.

But why doesn’t the UAE have more permanent science centres, like the one in Sharjah, that can serve the same purpose all year round, not only for a handful of days?

The Sharjah Science Museum was one of my most memorable childhood experiences. The museum introduced me to a wide range of topics.

And now, many years later, when I look around trying to find similar educational centres for my little niece and other young children, I find very few.

The country is aiming to build a knowledge-based economy by 2030. It has built colleges and facilities, supported research, hosted international education institutions and made efforts to promote science to the young generations. But will this be enough?

Unfortunately, UAE students are performing below the international average in maths and science, according to the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which measures the performance of grade 4 and grade 8 students in 63 countries every four years.

The report published in 2011 also revealed that about 60 per cent of boys were ill-prepared in both disciplines. Emirati pupils scored lower than their expatriate counterparts in both private and public curriculum schools.

The UAE also participated in the Pisa test, which measures the performance of 15-year-old pupils in science, maths and reading, for the first time in 2010. The country was ranked 47 out of 74 education systems from around the world.

A 2012 study by Sohailah Makhmasi, a master’s engineering student at Khalifa University, showed that poor teaching and the lack of English preparation in public schools have been pushing Emirati students away from science.

However, the process of adapting the education system to support stronger maths and science performance is underway.

The country has established several higher education institutions focusing on science in recent years, but such institutions need a steady intake of well-educated students in order to reach their potential.

In Abu Dhabi, authorities have acknowledged the issue.

Adec has been working on reversing this trend by launching the New School Model based on bilingual teaching. It will be fully operational by 2015. The Ministry of Education has also launched the Madaras Al Ghad initiative on a federal level to improve the situation by creating a more interactive and stimulating classroom environment. But we are yet to see the results.

Increasing funding for research is also crucial. The UAE and the region invest too little in research compared to the developed countries. Research spending is currently equivalent to 0.3 per cent of GDP, according to the National Research Foundation.

The UAE is part of a region that has contributed remarkably to scientific development.

During the Golden Age of Arabic-Islamic sciences between the 8th and 13th centuries, many discoveries were made in the fields of mathematics, physics, medicine and education.

Reviving this era cannot be achieved in the short-term. It requires years and years of investment in research and education. But the good news is that the UAE has both the resources and the people talented enough to pursue this goal.

These talents need inspiration, education and support. Only then can the country have its own “golden age” in science.

AAlmazrouei@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlMazroui