During a summer camp for tweens in Qatar last week, a gaggle of youth gathered wide-eyed around a long cylinder that emitted tendrils of what looked like white smoke or fog.
Phones poised, they waited impatiently for a “Mad Scientist” in a white lab coat to explain the experiment.
“It’s dry ice, which is solid carbon dioxide and dishwasher liquid,” Annie Olivo said, gesturing to the cylinder that was now smoking around the edges. “We will now add hot water,” she added, holding a flask above the rim.
The group crowded in even closer, hoping to capture the moment and share it on Snapchat.
As the dry ice reacted to the hot water, thick bubbles burst to the top of the cylinder, fizzing over the brim and dripping down the cylinder.
Squealing in delight and wonder, the kids rushed to poke and capture the steady stream of cool froth and dry-ice infused bubbles in their hands.
Soon, they broke into applause, replaying the event on their phones, and whispering amongst themselves about how “cool” the experiment was.
Without notes, theory, or lectures, the children had learned about dry ice, how it reacted with water and the concept of sublimation.
Making learning fun
Over the past few years, at least three companies that teach children about science in non-traditional ways have opened in Qatar, and quickly become an established presence at schools, summer camp programs and kids’ birthday parties.
All the companies are relatively new to Qatar. The incumbent, Canadian franchise Mad Science, opened a Doha branch in 2013.
Speaking to Doha News, the local branch’s head scientist Olivo said there used to be few chances for children to learn about science outside the classroom in Qatar. She continued:
“There was a huge gap… After-school activities were mostly sport- or arts-based, and science was left to the classroom.
Our mission is to change the idea of science being a rigid, time-intensive field, and make it something fun. We want to help children appreciate the beauty of science,” she said.
Other groups like Science Made Fun, an American franchise that opened in Doha last year, teach topics that they might not necessarily covered during the school year.
Speaking to Doha News, admin manager Amina Khanum said:
“Our most popular and requested session is dinosaurs. Kids love it. We teach them a crash, introductory course in paleontology and have fun interactive activities to go along with it.
They have a blast digging up ‘fossils’ and take home ‘dinosaur bones,’ and they learn something that they wouldn’t have had the chance to otherwise.”
Despite being relatively new to the country, all three franchises said that they are already working with several private schools. Olivo said:
“Initially, we started off with just two schools, but are now up to 15. We’re mostly called in for after-school programs, and have year-long contracts with the international schools to provide hour or hour-and-a-half long sessions throughout the year.”
“Among the independent schools, it was tough at first…we’re still trying. There are quite a few who ask us to do sessions, where we come in for a class period and essentially take over, but they don’t have year-long contracts, where we provide constant classes.
I would say we have about 15 independent schools who have used our program at some point or the other, and the number is slowly growing.”
In addition to growing its appeal among Qataris, some of the organizations are also working to woo more girls.
Karen Slim, the local branch manager at Little Engineer, which is geared more toward robotics and engineering, noted a significant gender divide among her company’s participants.
Speaking to Doha News, she said:
“It’s always the case. Engineering attracts more boys than girls, but we’re actively trying to change that. We hold trial sessions and tell girls that they can participate in a session and if they like it, they can continue, and that’s seemed to have worked.
We have a lot of young girls from the states and from India who attend our sessions. Few locals, but quite a good number of expats.”
While Lebanese franchise Little Engineer caters to toddlers, teenagers and college students, both Mad Science and Science Made Fun cater to a younger demographic of children ages 4 to 14 years old.
The groups draw on franchise databases of over 600 experiments and some 150 themed-sessions to tailor classes, programs birthday parties, and activities to the children’s needs.
Mad Science holds birthday party appearances that cost between QR1,000 to QR1,550 per hour for a themed session of some five to 10 experiments for 15 to 20 children.
“We always try to have some sort of giveaway or take home experiment. If we make bouncy balls out of polymer powder, the kids can take it home.
The learning shouldn’t just stop at the session. Once the child goes home, the parents see it, and they learn, and their siblings may see it, and they learn too,” Olivo said.
Meanwhile, Little Engineer hosts summer camp programs, workshops and after-school activities to get children interested in the engineering fields.
Their programs range from hands-on experiments where children make moving racing cars to more theoretical sessions catering to university and pre-university level children.
Challenges and Response
All three groups said that the greatest challenge was in trying to introduce the concept of edutainment to a local audience.
“People didn’t understand it at first. We’re not a tutoring program or an organization that provides additional curriculum-related help to children outside of school. At the same time, we’re not an arts or music club. So it was a bit tough to get clients initially,” Khanum said.
However, largely through word of mouth referrals, the groups have managed to build a substantial client base over the years.
“Another concern is the safety of the kids. It’s paramount to us, but at the beginning, there were questions of how safe the activities were. Dry ice, for example, is very cool, but it cannot be touched with bare hands, and so people were worried about it.
But after they saw demonstrations, and schools realized that we took safety very seriously, that became less of an issue,” Olivo said.
For parents, the sessions have been a welcome addition to traditional entertainment options. Cindy Alexander, a Canadian expat who hired the group for her 8-year-old son’s birthday party last year, said:
“I found them very helpful and accommodating. We had the rocket launch and dry ice. They did some experiments with the children. They came to our club house and set up their equipment early.
The children were ages six to 10 (years old) and several came up to us after and said it was the best party ever! …The children also made a slime ball which doubled as the take-home gift instead of a loot bag. It was expensive but honestly well worth it!”