Browsing 'science' News

A two-day robotics challenge this weekend had Al Shaqab Stadium buzzing with the sound of whirring machinery, clicking laptop keys and, unusually, girls’ laughter.

Several hundred female students from both independent and international schools were among the approximately 1,000 young science and technology enthusiasts participating in this year’s annual National Robotics Olympiad.

National Robotics Olympiad

Chantelle D'mello

National Robotics Olympiad

The event, aimed at encouraging students in Qatar to learn more about robotics and programming by building functioning prototypes, suggests more young women are preparing to enter industries in science, technology and engineering – fields that have traditionally been dominated by men.

“It’s usually just boys who take this up, but we wanted to prove that girls could join and compete,” said junior high student Mary Carmelle Medina of the Philippine School Doha.

But despite their burgeoning interest in the field, several girls told Doha News that their penchant for robotics made them a minority in their classes, schools and social circles.

The separation seemed to continue into adolescence, where the areas of the stadium dedicated to junior high, high school, and university participants saw fewer numbers of girls than the one for elementary school children.

However, that did little to dampen the enthusiasm of students.

Participants’ perspective

It was a love of building that drove Nada Abu Hayeh, a 13-year old Palestinian student at Amna Bint Wahab Preparatory School, to join her school’s robotics club.

“Our school has been presenting here for four years, but this is the first year that I’ve been here. It was a lot of work. The team has had to stay back for two extra hours after school every day of the school year. But it’s worth it. We’re doing something different, creating things, which not many people get to do,” she said.

Despite not bagging a prize in their category, Abu Hayeh and her two teammates said that coming up with a design, building and programming their three machines – a moving tractor-like robot, a separating machine, and a conveyor belt – was a satisfying reward in itself.

National Robotics Olympiad

Chantelle D'mello

National Robotics Olympiad

For others, like 16-year old Qatari Aisha Al Darwish, robotics offered a taste of possible career options ahead of applying to university.

Along with her friend Basma Ayman, Al Darwish created a prototype of a machine to extract natural resources in “dangerous” environments.

“We had a robotics unit as part of our curriculum in Grade 8, and that (piqued) my interest,” Al Darwish said. “I love this field … (and) I love the sciences. I’m sure what I want to major in in college, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to try new things like this.”

Robotic challenges

The competition’s main categories involved teams of students dismantling, rebuilding and reprograming a fully functional robot to carry out different tasks.

Elementary school children, for example, had to create a robot that mimicked pearl diving, while those in the junior high school category had to program a robot to pick up and differentiate lego blocks along a course according to color.

National Robotics Olympiad

Chantelle D'mello

National Robotics Olympiad

High school participants, meanwhile, had to create more sophisticated models that climbed colourful “mountains” and performed other tasks, while university students had to create a robot that could bowl.

The initiative is part of Go Robot, a local school robotics programme established in 2012 to help develop interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

The program is supported by the Supreme Education Council, the College of the North Atlantic – Qatar and Maersk Oil. It incorporates some 30 hours of teacher training, free robotics kits and other year-round help for schools interested in establishing a robotics extracurricular program.

This year also marks the first in which Qatar plays host to the World Robot Olympiad, which runs from Nov. 6 to 8. The three-day event will see yesterday’s 34 winning teams compete head-to-head with more than 3,000 of the most talented science students from around 50 countries.

Thoughts?

Mad Science session

Reem Saad

Mad Science session

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.

Mad Science session

Reem Saad

Mad Science session

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.

The franchises – Mad Science, The Little Engineer, and Science Made Fun – are part of a growing group of local and international organizations trying to make learning fun.

Mad Science session

Reem Saad

Mad Science session

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.

Dino days

Science Made Fun

Dino days

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.”

Growing appeal

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.”

The groups have also been trying to gain a foothold in independent (state-funded) schools, which struggle with a shortage of qualified teachers and high student absentee rates.

Mad Science session

Reem Saad

Mad Science session

Khanum said:

“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.”

Services

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.

Mad Science session

Reem Saad

Mad Science session

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.

Mad Science session

Reem Saad

Mad Science session

“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!”

Thoughts?

dna!

DNA11/Flickr

In an effort to learn more about the diseases affecting the local population and how best to treat them, Qatar will officially launch an initiative to map out the genome of Qataris in the coming months, former first lady Sheikha Moza bint Nasser has said.

The chairperson of Qatar Foundation made the announcement at the opening of the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) on Tuesday at the Qatar National Convention Center, just days after Saudi Arabia revealed its plans for a similar initiative.

Qataris, like others in the Middle East, are more susceptible to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, some neurological disorders and other diseases, according to local researchers.

Understanding the genetic difference between Qataris and populations elsewhere around the world can help medical experts understand why local residents are more prone to certain ailments as well as help manage their personal care.

Someone with a high rate of diabetes, for example, may monitor their blood sugars more closely as well as exercising more and watching what they eat.

Understanding the Arab world

The structure, organization and function of a complete set of human genes can be thought of as basic inheritable instructions for the development and functioning of a human being, according to the U.S.-based National Human Genome Research Institute.

It states that mapping is the first step in isolating a gene and can offer firm evidence that a disease transmitted from parent to child is linked to one or more genes.

An international team first officially sequenced the human genome in 2003, as part of the Human Genome Project. According to the New York Times, the task cost $1 billion and took eight years. It consisted of compiling a list of the three billion letters of genetic code that make up what scientists at the time considered to be a sort of “everyperson’s” DNA.

Now, individuals can have their DNA sequenced in a matter of days, for a cost of around $5,000. But genetic mapping has yet to take hold in the Middle East, Hanan Al Kuwari, the managing director of Hamad Medical Corp., told Doha News on the sidelines of the summit. She added that Qatar’s project will fill a gap in global genetic research:

“Right now, there hasn’t been much mapping of the Arab world. The more we understand the Arab gene, the more we’ll be able to help improve health care in the region.”

She later added that one of the promises of genetic research is the development of more effective medicine that’s individualized for specific patients.

Al Kuwari was unable to provide any details about the project, such as its sample size or timeline, saying such information would be released in the coming months.

Decoding efforts

Efforts to decode the Qatar genome appear to already be well underway at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Researchers in Qatar and New York have already published preliminary research that revealed several clues about the genetic variability across Qataris of Bedouin, Persian and African ancestry. According to an article published this fall by the Qatar National Research Fund, a larger study is underway that involves “sequencing” 1,000 Qataris, more than half of which have already provided samples.

Another local initiative aims to collect biological samples from 60,000 Qataris and long-term expats by 2018.

The “biobank” – a collaboration between the Qatar Foundation’s Biomedical Research Institute, Hamad Medical Corp., the Supreme Council of Health and the Imperial College London – anonymously stores samples of blood, saliva, urine and body measurements, which will be analyzed and used to tackle chronic health problems.

Thoughts?