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March 23, 2009
Volume 87, Number 12
pp. 43-44, 47

Teaching Chemistry In Qatar

Middle Eastern country fosters unique opportunities for Western-style education

Rachel Petkewich

MORE THAN 1,000 college students and their instructors are participating in a unique educational experiment in a tiny nation in the Middle East.

Connected Sophomore chemical engineering majors Sahar Elrefai (left) and Dema Al Masri attend Texas A&M University’s campus in Qatar.

Angela Kuhr, a senior chemical engineering student based at Texas A&M University, in College Station, is one of them. She recently spent a semester taking engineering classes and doing chemistry research at the university’s campus in Qatar (pronounced “kah' tar”). The Texas native is now applying for jobs in the country. Another Texas A&M senior majoring in chemical engineering, Karim Farhat, who is studying at the Qatar campus, is anxiously awaiting decisions on his applications to U.S. graduate schools. The Lebanese citizen is interested in the environmental and sustainability aspects of the energy industry. And Hassan S. Bazzi, a citizen of both Lebanon and Canada, learned about Texas A&M University at Qatar while finishing a chemistry postdoc in Montreal. He has since helped establish its science program.

Texas A&M’s Qatar campus is part of a larger site in Doha known as “Education City,” which hosts small campuses from several other U.S. universities. This unusual cluster of higher education facilities is helping to bring Western-style problem-solving-based chemistry and chemical engineering education to the Middle East.

The private, nonprofit Qatar Foundation for Education, Science & Community Development—created in 1995 by Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, emir of Qatar—has provided all of the money for buildings, salaries, and operating costs under separate 10-year agreements for each participating university.

Learning Curve Mohd Mateen Kamal, a junior chemical engineering major at TAMUQ, works on a laboratory titration experiment.

Universities are currently trying to figure out what it means to be a top global institution, says Steven W. McLaughlin, vice provost for international initiatives at Georgia Institute of Technology, which has permanent undergraduate engineering programs in France, Ireland, and China. But starting a campus is a complicated undertaking that requires a lot of time and money to succeed, he adds. For example, Georgia Tech’s campus in France, which offers classes, research, and economic development, has taken about 18 years to really establish itself, he says.

For years, many U.S. colleges and universities have created microcosms of their main campuses in European and Asian nations or created partnerships with established foreign universities to facilitate student exchanges. Now, as universities look to make their names more internationally recognized and to maximize their research capabilities and economic development, the Middle East has become an intriguing prospect.

At the same time, Qatar is looking to build a knowledge-based economy. Education City focuses on reforming the country’s educational system, from early childhood through university level. Construction of the 2,500-acre Education City began in the late 1990s and is ongoing.

APPROXIMATELY 1,200 students are currently enrolled at the six U.S. universities that accepted an invitation to participate in Education City. Each university targets a different area of study, ranging from fine arts to science.

Three of the campuses have chemistry faculty that teach undergraduate classes. Texas A&M Qatar (TAMUQ) offers undergraduate degrees in chemical, electrical, mechanical, and petroleum engineering, and minors in chemistry and math. Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q), an offshoot of Cornell University’s medical school in New York City, is Qatar’s first medical school. Cornell is the first American university to award an M.D. degree overseas, according to university officials. It offers a six-year program consisting of a two-year undergraduate premed program and a four-year graduate medical program. Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar offers business, computer science, and information systems degrees. None of these three universities currently awards graduate degrees in science or engineering.

John Samples/WCMC-Q
Teaching Moment Smith explains how to use a rotary evaporator to WCMC-Q students.

To spur research, faculty at the Qatar campuses are encouraged to apply for funding from the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), which is modeled after the U.S. National Science Foundation and funded by the Qatar Foundation. In the first available round of grants from QNRF, chemists at TAMUQ were awarded $2.2 million for 2008–11 for their research proposals.

Education City provides benefits for students, whether they are based in Qatar or at the main U.S. campuses of its universities. Students based in Qatar have access to a brand-name degree without needing to leave the region. Although many Qatari students can freely travel throughout the world, strong cultural and family ties often discourage them from moving abroad. Students at U.S. and Qatar campuses also benefit from meeting counterparts from the other country through exchanges between main and branch campuses.

Kuhr, for instance, had always wanted to study abroad and was one of the first students to travel from College Station to study at TAMUQ. She ranks the educators in Qatar as some of her best professors.

Qatari-born chemical engineering student Abdullah Soltani also respects the professors at TAMUQ. He says the degree he will receive this spring will open doors for him; he expects to work in a technical position in Qatar’s oil and gas industry. Soltani had read about American universities, but after hearing about TAMUQ, he says, “I asked myself, why would I travel abroad and study while one of the best universities in the world has a campus in my country?”

Soltani says he also likes the Western-style education and the opportunity to do some polymer research with faculty.

EDUCATORS Marvin W. Rowe (left), a chemistry professor at Texas A&M, College Station, also teaches at the university's Qatar campus with Bazzi (center) and Brandon Chance (right), the technical laboratory coordinator.

The professors and deans working at the three branch campuses who spoke with C&EN have all lived in Doha for at least three years. Most have their families with them and have renewed their contracts to stay, several times in some cases. As a group, they combine a pioneering spirit with great excitement about being part of Qatar’s experiment in higher education.

Yet the experience is more familiar than one might expect. Living and working in Doha is “really not all that much different from small-town Texas” in many ways, says James Holste, associate dean for research and graduate studies at TAMUQ.

Holste, who has held a faculty position in chemical engineering at College Station since 1975 and was also associate dean for international programs there before helping to start TAMUQ, says Texas A&M’s contract with the Qatar Foundation began in 2003 and is up for renewal in 2013. The final decision to continue has not been made, he says, but both sides seem happy with the arrangements so far.

TAMUQ CURRENTLY has 369 students—approximately one-quarter of whom are chemical engineering majors—and five faculty members who teach chemistry and do chemistry-related research. Bazzi, a polymer chemist and former United Nations chemical weapons inspector in Iraq, is an assistant professor of chemistry and coordinator of the science program. He was one of the first faculty members on the ground at TAMUQ in 2003. Setting up the teaching facilities and research labs was his first priority. “I had to order everything, starting with spatulas up to a 400-MHz NMR and everything in between,” he says.

Faculty at the branch campuses in Education City coordinate frequently with their respective main campuses to maintain equal academic rigor. For example, Bazzi says, chemistry professors at TAMUQ teach with the same books and do many of the same laboratory exercises as the faculty in College Station. And they take advantage of technology, too. “Some of the classes are taught by distance learning, so the professor is sitting in College Station and the students are in Doha and vice versa,” he adds.

INTERNATIONAL Students from various countries learn and interact with each other in Qatar's Education City.

Research is just as much of a priority for faculty at TAMUQ as at College Station. Bazzi currently has two postdocs and a research technician in his lab and has collaborations with scientists in the U.S., Canada, Germany, and Singapore. He attends conferences and publishes papers. Undergrads, including Kuhr and Soltani, have participated in his research as well.

WCMC-Q and Carnegie Mellon Qatar, the other two campuses that offer chemistry classes in Education City, do more teaching than research at this point. Kevin C. Smith, an organic chemist teaching at WCMC-Q, is planning to collaborate with Cornell faculty in New York City as well as with scientists in the West Bank. He was recruited from a tenure-track position in the chemistry and biochemistry department at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, to come to WCMC-Q and teach chemistry in the two-year premed program. The Canadian citizen adds that the move was “a career plan, not just an adventure.”

Smith explains that the premed program prepares Middle Eastern students without an undergraduate degree to enter the four-year graduate medical college, so they receive an M.D. degree after six years.

Smith is one of four chemistry faculty members at WCMC-Q who teach general and organic chemistry courses, including labs, in the premed program. He prefers teaching students in the program rather than those with a variety of majors because he can tailor his class examples to be relevant to their medical training.

Seeing the well-equipped lab teaching facilities at WCMC-Q—for example, all students have their own fume hoods—sealed the deal for him. “When I walked into the lab,” he says, “I saw the lab I had only dreamed of in Canada.” Besides the teaching, Smith has also enjoyed watching the city progress so rapidly. He says he hopes to stay in Doha until he retires.

At Carnegie Mellon Qatar, Terrance B. Murphy is the sole chemistry faculty member. He is teaching lecture-based classes while the lab teaching facility is being completed. Murphy has taught university-level chemistry in Middle Eastern countries for the past 20 years and joined Carnegie Mellon Qatar in July. He says he is quite content with the small classes and attentive students.

Courtesy of Karim Farhat
HOWDY Farhat (center) meets in College Station with Eric Calderon (left) and Mark Gold (right), presidents of TAMU's Student Engineers' Council and Student Government Association, respectively.

Murphy also enjoys using Western-style curricula as a way to empower his students to expand their capabilities. “Middle East education is based on rote learning rather than thinking,” he says. But in Education City, chemistry students must learn how to solve problems on the test that are different from the homework. Applying the principles to different problems can be a revolutionary concept for Middle Eastern students, and lab work may be totally new to some, Murphy says. Qataris, for example, are not used to working with their hands. “This is not a culture where guys work on cars,” and it is a culture where women have maids who do their dishes, he says. But once the students get the hang of it, they tend to like setting up lab equipment, he has found.

IT'S NOT ONLY the students whose horizons are expanded. “We are here to teach, but we are also here to learn” about, for example, regional research issues surrounding oil and gas, finance, and government, explains Charles E. Thorpe, Carnegie Mellon Qatar’s dean. Perhaps most important, he adds, “only by being on the ground can you absorb some of the outlook and values of the local culture.”

Although students, professors, and administrators generally describe absorbing the local culture and importing bits of American university culture as a positive and enriching experience on all sides, there have been some difficulties in Education City. On one hand, Middle Eastern students take a little time to adjust to greeting other students with the enthusiastic “Howdy!” that is customary in College Station. On the other hand, professors and deans say some Qatari students, who have been separated by gender since their early schooling, initially have to adjust to coeducation and working in mixed groups.

Students in Education City have created opportunities for cultural exchange and professional development. For example, Farhat, who is the first president of the Student Engineers’ Council at TAMUQ, says the group communicates regularly with its counterpart in College Station. In addition, he says he has already noticed advantages to being part of an American engineering program while participating in local engineering conferences. He says international companies quickly recognize Texas A&M and are pleased to learn that it has extended its program to Qatar.

The Middle East is famous for it bountiful oil and gas reserves, but with innovative education projects—including New York University’s new Abu Dhabi campus—the region is expanding its global scientific and technological profile by tapping into local talent, too.

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ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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