x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Technology-oriented schools to grow enrolment

Push is on for more university-ready scholars who will pursue degrees in maths and science.

Students at the IAT High School on the Khalifa University compound.
Students at the IAT High School on the Khalifa University compound.

ABU DHABI // One of the country's top technology institutes plans to increase its number of students by 55 per cent as part of its drive to prepare Emiratis for careers in science and engineering. The Institute of Applied Technology (IAT), which comprises six secondary schools across the UAE, will enrol an extra 1,500 pupils in the autumn, said its director general, Dr Abdullatif al Shamsi. Much of the expansion comes from the decision to extend classes to include Grade 9 pupils.

The change means the IAT student body will number 4,200, from the current 2,700. The IAT was established as part of Abu Dhabi's 2030 plan and works to develop local knowledge-based industries with an aim to steer the economy away from a reliance on the petroleum sector. "To meet the development plans of Abu Dhabi government, the education system needs to attract the best UAE national talent to study engineering and technology," Dr al Shamsi said. "The industrial diversification we are seeing here is fuelling a demand in the labour market for a highly skilled local workforce."

IAT's campuses, five for boys and one for girls, prepare students to work as skilled technicians and engineers in the nuclear energy, aerospace and petrochemical sector. The majority of students at IAT come from public schools. In Grade 11, students choose one of four pathways or "career clusters": science and engineering, health science and technology, IT or applied engineering. In 2005, the IAT system replaced the old vocational schools, which had operated nationwide since the late 1970s, training students to do hands-on industrial work for less academic youngsters.

The vocational schools, Dr al Shamsi said, may have been "good enough for the previous century", but times have changed. "With the IT revolution, graduates should be more competent when it comes to robotics, when it comes to programming, the IT skills they should have." He said that as factories have become more automated, they demand a "different calibre" of student. Like the federal university system, many students who arrive at the IAT in Grade 10 have insufficient grounding in maths and science.

"It is no secret that our education system on the government level really needs a lot of work," Dr al Shamsi said. "Our country's leaders are really focused on strategies to revamp our educational system to bring it to the international level." Figures released in 2005 by the Ministry of Education found 55 per cent of public school students around two years behind in maths, while another 35 per cent were one year behind.

The picture was worse for science, with just three per cent of public school students performing at grade level. Part of the decision to expand the school to Grade 9 was to give IAT more time to prepare students for university. To ensure that students are competing with peers around the world, IAT relies on international rather than local testing schemes and requires graduates to achieve a high enough level of English to be admitted to an American university.

Students studying in the IAT's science and engineering track take SAT subject tests in maths and physics. Compared to public schools, the IAT has two hours' extra tuition each day and more teaching days per year, 180 compared to around 155. The schools also employ a number of other unorthodox methods to keep students motivated - including giving them a stipend of from Dh800 (US$215) to Dh1,000 per month if they meet standards.

The school also has a "three strikes and you're out" policy for bad behaviour. Smoking can lead to immediate dismissal. "Here they have strict orders for these things," said Mohammed al Hosani, 17, said of the school's attendance policy, compared to public schools. Despite the rules, Mohammed and his classmate, Yousef al Ali, also 17, are delighted to be at the IAT. "We know that it's better than other schools," said Yousef, who wants to pursue a career in aerospace or nuclear engineering."

Discipline is also a crucial factor in the institute's programme, with military training and community service compulsory. Instilling a strong work ethic is at an early age is important, Dr Al Shamsi said. "We are preparing our students for jobs of the future highly skilled, highly technical careers ? The types of qualifications and experience graduates will need are very different from those produced in the past."