Stars in their eyes

Student-run science clubs are sprouting across schools and universities in the country under the guidance of Dubai Astronomy Group (DAG). The aim of these groups is to rekindle an interest in science and the natural world among local students.

By Praseeda Nair

Published: Tue 25 Oct 2011, 11:42 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 7:03 PM

“When a person stumbles on information on their own, the facts tend to stick. With it comes a sense of accomplishment and a joy of learning. This is what we want science and astronomy clubs to achieve: to have children graduate not as doctors or engineers but as explorers, discoverers and inventors,” Hasan AlHariri, founder of DAG told Khaleej Times. These inventors, explorers and discoverers are students as young as five from several Dubai-based schools as well as schools in Abu Dhabi and Fujairah.

Located in a predominantly Arab neighbourhood in Al Twar, New World Private School boasts of a strong science programme supplementing the Ministry of Education-approved curriculum. Equipped with a 12” observer telescope, to-scale dioramas and functioning robots, the science club draws in students even during recess and after school.

After watching a documentary on the Mars Rover, ninth grade students Ahmed Hasan Ahmed and Waseem Rafik decided to try their hand at making a replica of the robot. “We joined the club two weeks ago because we’re both very interested in robotics,” Waseem said. “Last week, we helped our friends make a robot that can climbs stairs!”

While robotics and space exploration may not be on the syllabus, the interest generated by real-world advances in science is what keeps most of the students in the classroom even after school. Principal of New World Private School Mahasin Yusuf noted the general trend among students in the UAE to opt for the arts instead of the sciences. “One of the biggest issues facing the education sector in the UAE is that science has been a weak point for a long time. It is definitely a concern for the Ministry of Education as the percentage of (local) students opting for the science stream is at a record low,” she said.

After four years of working with DAG, Yusuf commented on a marked difference in this trend at her school. “Out of the five senior classes in the boys’ section, three classes are in the science stream. Now we’re seeing the majority of students actively interested in the sciences.” In terms of grades, Yusuf admitted that the improvement was not apparent, but according to her, the interest in learning beyond the curriculum and asking questions has increased tenfold. “Minister of Education (Humaid Mohammed Obaid) Al Qattami visited our school twice this year and both times, he was very impressed by the science club in particular,” she added, leading to other schools visiting New World Private on field trips to observe and emulate their out-of-the-box learning strategies. AlHariri’s vision for schools across the country is simple. “Science is highly problematic for most students. Not only does the subject itself appear dense, there is the added element of a language barrier. We want to break these obstacles down by making science a natural part of life, which it is! We don’t see ourselves as teachers, just enablers providing schools with the latest equipment and information as long as schools can give us a venue and help us plan a parallel syllabus.”

The New World Private’s science club is equipped with a minitheatre for documentary screenings and an e-learning lab, with more than 1,000 documentaries and 50,000 e-books from DAG’s collection. Field trips to Sharjah’s scenic Al Faya mountain range allow for students to collect fossil rocks as well as stargaze at nightfall. “Moulding inquisitive young minds is a huge task. We can show them how to explore and discover things, but the rest is up to them. Knowledge should ideally generate knowledge,” Hasan added.

DAG hopes to reach Indian schools in the future as more international institutions like GEMS Wellington Academy and Repton School join the science club bandwagon. Even universities like the Higher Colleges of Technology and American University of Sharjah are on DAG’s roster. “At the end of the day, DAG has to look at our future, not just as a group, but as a pastime and icon of our culture. Astronomy will not have a future if we don’t stimulate interest by incorporating a love of science in schools.”

With more schools embracing this hands-on learning style, science clubs could possibly be the death knell for old-fashioned rote learning.

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