x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

More students needed for frontier science

As many as 75,000 experts will be required by 2018, but many students today are not aware of the expanding need of the renewable energy sector.

Dr Mahmoud Abu Shammeh, the head of Sharjah University’s central laboratory, runs tests with Aalal al Othman and Kareem Kamal.
Dr Mahmoud Abu Shammeh, the head of Sharjah University’s central laboratory, runs tests with Aalal al Othman and Kareem Kamal.

AJMAN // As the UAE seeks to reduce its dependence on oil and gas, universities say they must have even greater support of the Government and industry if the country is to fully build its capacity in alternative energy.

The institutions say students were wary of taking courses specialising in renewable energy because they were unclear about the jobs situation - despite the fact that as many as 75,000 positions in the field are expected by 2018. Indeed, one expert said there was no shortage of work.

Zein Alabideen, dean of the Institute of Environment, Water and Energy at Ajman University of Science and Technology, said that while the institute would like to develop a programme in renewable energy, the challenge was recruiting students.

After a detailed needs assessment, Mr Alabideen and his team found great enthusiasm for the speciality from government ministries such as the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Energy.

The university is trying to raise awareness of environmental issues, including a compulsory course for all students in environmental science, which they introduced two years ago.

Next year, it hopes to launch a programme in environmental engineering and management, but Mr Alabideen said that they must partner with an institution in the UK or US to ensure that should the programme not recruit enough students, there was a back-up plan for those already enrolled.

Ten students are enrolled on their MSc in Groundwater Energy and Management, while another 10 have graduated since the programme's inception in 2007.

Nabil Ibrahim, the chancellor of Abu Dhabi University, said that such niche programmes need the support of government and industry. In the UAE, he said a lack of companies to employ graduates in this "futuristic" field was keeping demand for programmes low despite the need to diversify and reduce the country's carbon footprint.

"It's still very new and the support of government and industry is vital. It's seen as a futuristic area and what's missing is the companies," he said.

However, the country's first Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research accredited undergraduate programme in renewable energy has just taken its first cohort of 25 students at the University of Sharjah. Ten are non-UAE residents and 15 are from around the emirates.

For this course, it was not recruiting students that has been the challenge but finding qualified faculty.

"There are so few in this field that those there are, are being sought by universities around the world," said the university's chancellor, Samy Mahmoud, who was now looking for graduate schools for its future faculty.

Implementing a programme on any scale, he admitted, was a cost beyond the budget of many universities, with one lab alone costing about Dh5.5 million.

Mr Mahmoud said that by 2018, the Ministry of Energy anticipated needing about 75,000 experts in the field and said that it was urgent that the country trained its own.

There was no shortage of work for the students, he said, who in their third year will begin their 16-week placements. The first two years are spent studying subjects such as basic sciences, energy sources, storage and distribution.

"So many companies have said they need these graduates, from the airline industry who want to make more efficient planes to the construction industry who want to build more efficient homes and factories," Mr Mahmoud added.

Other areas in which jobs could appear would be electric and water utilities companies, who want their systems to become more energy efficient, and manufacturers of cooling and heating systems.

Next year, the university hopes to launch its undergraduate programme in nuclear energy.

Khalifa University of Science and Technology hopes to launch its Master's programme in nuclear engineering in the spring. The degree is awaiting accreditation from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

Philip Beeley, the programme co-ordinator, said that thanks to partnerships with local industry, there were already clear career pathways in place to lure future students.

"Partnerships with the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation and the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation put us at a real advantage because there's a real programme and a real timescale," he said.

In spite of the support, there are still only six students ready to start the programme. To prepare them, they are currently in a pre-Master's programme for one semester.

Studying five days a week, the students, who are all on scholarships, have three days of lectures, plus tutorials and self study.