Khalifa University announced today that one of its Masters in Engineering by Research students, Sohailah Makhmasi, has been invited to share the results of her research project at the upcoming Frontiers in Education Conference in Seattle, Washington, USA taking place this October.
“We have a problem,” says Sohailah. “Right now the number of students choosing science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, is less than half of those choosing arts. Last year, for every student that chose to follow a STEM career path, three chose to follow an arts related career path. I think it’s important to find out why.”
The lack of students going into STEM subjects is not unique to the UAE, as many countries are currently attempting to improve their school systems and make STEM classes a key part of their curricula. However, while studies have been done in other countries as to why students are not keen to pursue science and technology related careers, no significant studies have been done in the UAE.
“Studies in the USA have identified many barriers or ‘switch –off’ factors that affect students’ choice of studies,” says Sohailah. “I’ve looked at over 300 journals and articles of findings from other countries, and I wondered if all of those results also applied to the UAE, or if in fact we have our own unique reasons for our students not choosing STEM?”
In order to find out what these reasons were Sohailah developed a survey to be filled out by Grades 9 to 12 students in the UAE.
“Since the UAE is so diverse, with many different nationalities, I sent the surveys to both private and public schools, boys and girls, expats and Emirati’s,” says Sohailah.
Overall, 1000 students participated in the survey. 626 students were interested in or already attending STEM courses and 374 were not interested in STEM. In addition to Grades 9 to 12 students, Sohailah also included a group of university students.
“The findings were a bit surprising. Overall, both groups agreed on the usefulness of STEM in real life, and that STEM majors lead to high profile rewarding careers, and that STEM careers are suitable for females. That is a key difference from other countries, like the USA, where the STEM fields are viewed as ‘male only’ fields.”
“On the other hand, the groups disagreed regarding how the capability of teachers, societal factors and the language the courses are taught in influenced their choice of major.”
According to Sohailah’s findings the main factors for not choosing a STEM major were the capability of the STEM teacher and the language in which STEM courses were taught.
“Many students felt that their teachers lacked the capability to teach the subjects. They find them too difficult to pass. Also, especially amongst male public school students, their lack of English proficiency played a big part. In order to major in STEM in university you have to have a high level of English. These students didn’t possess the necessary scores to get into the programs. These are issues that really need to be addressed.”
The paper that Sohailah will present in Seattle will discuss a second survey that she conducted, identifying ways that teachers could improve how they teach STEM subjects.
Her last paper, identifying the reasons students are not going into STEM majors, won best paper at the recent Annual Global Engineering Education Conference in Morocco in April.
“We are very pleased to see our student’s research being recognized by the international community,” says Executive Vice President Dr. Arif Al Hammadi. “It is especially inspiring when their research demonstrates their dedication and love for their own country. This research will provide very important results that will help the countries decision makers plan future strategies to encourage students to follow a STEM career path, and will undoubtedly go a long way to helping the UAE achieve Abu Dhabi’s 2030 Vision.”
However, Sohailah’s, work is still not finished. Now that she has the results of the survey she wants to create a dynamic system that will allow her to predict the outcome of any changes made to the current education system. She currently has 18 months to complete the remainder of her Master’s degree.