Outreach Initiatives; Highlighting new academic and career paths

 15 May 2017 - 10:04

Outreach Initiatives; Highlighting new academic and career paths

The Peninsula

A group of ambitious high school students gathers on a Saturday in the bright and airy majlis area at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q). They are divided into two groups as buyers and sellers and got into a makeshift trading floor. The buzz in the air grows as the students gain confidence.

The activity involved around 40 students as part of CMU-Q’s outreach initiatives which highlight new academic and career paths for youth. Nazli Bhatia, visiting assistant teaching professor of organisational behaviour, says, “The students were so enthusiastic, the ones who finished first turned to their friends to help them. It was a great learning experience.”

The Qatar Foundation’s partner  campuses in Education City have a unique mandate to prepare the next generation for an economy that is actively under construction. With many sectors of the knowledge-based economy still developing, how can young people understand the types of careers that they can pursue?

The wide opportunity
CMU-Q takes a novel approach to the problem. Through a suite of carefully crafted workshops, outreach workshops let young people experience life as a stock trader, a computer programmer, an entrepreneur, an information systems analyst, or a laboratory scientist.

Outreach workshops offer a glimpse into the four fields at CMU-Q as biological sciences, business administration, computer science and information systems.
“As the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics infuse nearly every industry, including business, the choice can be daunting. CMU-Q’s outreach workshops give high schoolers a little taste of what is possible,” says John O’Brien, associate dean of CMU-Q.

Workshops include Tajer, the stock exchange simulation; Young Entrepreneurs; Biotechnology Explorers, which gets students into the lab to solve problems; Ibtikar, where students use tech tools to solve business problems; and Mindcraft, an introduction to computing and programming.

“Each of the workshops is designed to bring living examples to different STEM careers, so when students decide what they want to study in university, they have an idea of what is out there for them,” says Damian Dourado, director of pre-college programs at CMU-Q.

Essential skills
The Winter Institute is held each year at the end of January: an invitation-only programme for Qatari high school students where over the course of a week, they explore the field of computer science, learn basic computational skills, and see how computer scientists can shape the future of Qatar.

Computing is such an essential skill, CMU-Q has adapted the Alice interactive educational software for a Middle East audience. The original Alice software was developed at the Pittsburgh campus of Carnegie Mellon, and guides students through the basics of programming as they create virtual worlds and animations.

In 2008, H H Sheikha Moza bint Nasser expressed an interest in bringing the software to Qatar, so CMU-Q submitted a proposal to localise Alice for a Middle East audience. Qatar National Research Fund’s National Priorities Research Program (NPRP) funded the project in 2012.

In the 2016-17 academic year, Alice was used in 12 government and international schools in Qatar. CMU-Q provides training workshops for teachers, as well as ongoing school support. In the spring, CMU-Q holds a programming competition to showcase the skills the Alice students have acquired.

Saquib Razak, an associate teaching professor of computer science and the lead principle investigator of the Alice Middle East project, said, “Each year we are delighted to see such a brilliant effort from the students. We are amazed by what they can do, including a number of projects that we didn’t think were possible with Alice.”

The Ministry of Education and Higher Education is planning to roll out Alice ME in all Qatar schools that offer courses in ICT in the 2017-18 academic year.

Easing the transition
For Ilker Baybars, dean and CEO of CMU-Q, the outreach workshops lay the groundwork as for a successful transition to university. “Our goal is to get students excited about these areas of study, to inspire them to pursue fields that will ultimately drive the future of Qatar,” he said.

“We put significant resources into our outreach efforts: our faculty, staff and students continually tweak and tailor the experience so young people will be enlightened and inspired. It is worth it: the more we can show them now, the stronger and more directed the young people of Qatar will be as they begin their post-secondary studies and launch their careers in a knowledge-based economy,” he added. To ease the transition, CMU-Q offers a capstone outreach workshop called the Summer College Preview Program (SCPP). Held over three weeks, secondary students entering their last two years of school can experience university life while strengthening their college applications.

“The students learn what will be expected of them at the university level. They take classes, improve test-taking skills, and do a project in their specific area of interest. Each year I see students leave SCPP energised to study and get into a good, challenging university program,” says Dourado.

The outreach workshops are working. Nearly one quarter of CMU-Q students in last year’s incoming class completed SCPP; some students did the program twice to learn about a second field of study.