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Students at BITS Pilani Dubai Campus work on an engineering project Image Credit: Supplied

A team of scientists at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi is collaborating with Birmingham City University and Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi to develop a unique blockchain-based solution for Covid-19 digital passports and immunity certificates.

Designed to help people prove their vaccination and Covid status, digital passports may help control the virus’ spread significantly, while allowing cities to return to normal. These passports will likely take the form of apps, containing health information of users, as outlined by the researchers at Khalifa University.

Another Covid-19-related research initiative saw a multidisciplinary team of scientists and clinicians from the UAE University (UAEU), Khalifa University of Science and Technology, and University of Sharjah partnering with Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (SEHA) and Dubai Health Authority (DHA) to better understand the immune response to Covid-19, how the virus spreads and its impact on society. The research was especially undertaken to enable the government to develop and implement strategies that can reduce the effects of the coronavirus on the quality of life and the UAE’s economy.

The pandemic has spurred real-time collaboration among universities, government organisations, research institutes and companies to develop innovative solutions on improved diagnostics and surveillance, accelerate understanding of the variants of the virus, evaluate and assess the effectiveness of the vaccines, and create a road map to combat the pandemic.

However, it’s not just Covid management — higher education institutes in the UAE have collaborated consistently over the years with the government, businesses, research associations and entrepreneurs to initiate cross-sector, future-focused research and innovations and make impactful contributions to the country. From medicines and technology to solutions for societal and environmental challenges, universities have provided knowledge and solutions to fix problems of all sizes.

Supporting the UAE’s National Strategy for Higher Education 2030, which emphasises the need to provide the future generations with the necessary technical and practical skills to drive the economy in both public and private sectors, universities have also implemented a teaching strategy that encourages challenge-driven learning, motivating students to pursue entrepreneurial initiatives.

“The past few years have seen an increased attention to entrepreneurship education and an intensified activity of technology transfer,” says Dr Jinane Mounsef, Assistant Professor, Electrical Engineering, RIT Dubai. “Equally relevant are the increased interactions between universities and investors and the improvement of required infrastructures to incubate and accelerate business ideas.”

RIT Dubai plays a unique role in creating this required ecosystem for innovation in the UAE by dynamically interacting with industry and government on high levels, and shaping the evolution of real-life learning through co-ops, entrepreneurship-based workshops and capstones.

In a recent applied research project, six students from RIT Dubai’s electrical, industrial and mechanical engineering departments developed an innovative IoT-based Covid band.

“The project presents a solution to educational institutions and their students who are struggling with the optimal in-person teaching method. With high Covid-19 cases, it is often difficult to keep track of every individual and their infection status with contact tracing. Converting to a proactive system rather than a reactive one, this band allows organisations to continue operating while asserting curve-flattening techniques that help bring the virus down,” explains Dr Mounsef.

The Covid band offers a solution that includes constant monitoring, using different types of sensors and IoT to continuously track and monitor relevant data — distance, temperature and pulse rate — in a population throughout the day, and automatically report any detected anomalies to health officials.

BITS Pilani, Dubai Campus (BPDC) also has an excellent record in research and innovation, with strong traditions in science and engineering.

“We have an innovation laboratory with high-end equipment and 24x7 opportunities for students to work beyond boundaries, encouraging interdisciplinary research,” says Trupti Gokhale, Associate Professor and Faculty In-Charge, Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship, and Faculty In-Charge, Alumni Relations, BITS Pilani Dubai Campus.

Learning beyond the classrooms

UAEU, which is at the cutting edge of research in many fields, has taken several initiatives to create an environment that instills the value of lifelong learning.

“The Curriculum of the Future (CoF) that is currently incubated at the UAEU Science and Innovation Park is a transformational curriculum for lifelong learning. This can rewire the attitude of young generations towards their future and foster job creators rather than creating job seekers,” says Prof. Nihel Chabrak, CEO, UAEU Science and Innovation Park, and Executive Director, UAEU Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.

“Here learners acquire the skills, attitudes, competence, and transdisciplinary knowledge to continuously advance their success and create and recreate theirs careers and paths. The CoF transforms learners into pathfinders, who are living for a purpose higher than themselves and who are driven by the passion and sense of agency and responsibility towards solving the global challenges of their society,” Prof. Chabrak adds.

RAK Medical & Health Sciences University (RAKMHSU) has taken several steps to promote on-campus research opportunities. “Universities will not be considered for any ranking system unless they have a significant contribution to research,” says Dr S. Gurumadhva Rao, its President.

“In addition to creating the necessary infrastructure, RAKMHSU has also initiated several incentives for research publication and research work within the campus,” says Dr Rao. “A seed money grant is available for all faculty from the university research grant. RAKMHSU regularly conducts the scientific conference, where many of our students participate and present their work.

“Furthermore, the university sponsors faculty and students selected for the presentation of papers in international conferences, seminars and workshops. Evidence-based medicine, including statistics and ethics, is being taught to all students to give them an insight into the research methodology.”

Experiential learning

Universities in the UAE are also looking at ways to make learning more hands-on and engaging through experiences that complement or build upon classes and coursework, which subsequently help educators to better prepare students for the working world.

Gulf Medical University (GMU), for example, offers a robust, outcome-competency based curriculum aligned to international competency framework, with early exposure to clinical training and experience with patients from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

“Students gain the competitive edge from their experience working with cutting-edge research infrastructure and facilities at GMU,” says Prof. Hossam Hamdy, Chancellor of Gulf Medical University. “Furthermore, GMU’s prestigious accreditations and international collaborations with leading universities in the US, Europe and the Far East give wide recognition to its programmes.

“The university has abundant clinical training facilities within its academic health centres where students learn from leading medical experts and gain hands-on experience on cutting-edge healthcare technology. The internationally accredited systems at Thumbay hospitals and clinics not only prepare the students for a global healthcare career, but also equip them with futuristic competencies.”

From idea to implementation

Universities have started taking steps to foster a strong entrepreneurial culture where creative thinking is inspired and nurtured, ensuring that students are equipped to pursue entrepreneurship as both a career path as well as a way a life.

Government of Dubai has also outlined in its Fifty-Year Charter that national and private universities will be announced free zones where students can carry out their economic and creative businesses and this will be part of the educational system. Integrated creative and economic zones will be established next to universities to support students in education, research, and finance while setting up their businesses.

BITS Pilani Dubai’s Center for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) is a unique example where entrepreneurship has become a significant part of the university experience. It encourages students to think out of the box, work on innovative ideas and transform them into working prototypes.

“The incubation facility guides students and faculty through their path from ideation to start-up. Courses such as Entrepreneurship, New venture Creation and Business Communication help the budding entrepreneurs in developing business ideas,” says Gokhale.

BITS Pilani Dubai also connects young entrepreneurs with mentors through its strong alumni network, who guide students with entrepreneurial flair in every step of their journey — from idea validation, understanding the market proposition to developing the business model canvas. “Several inter-university and intra-university business competitions are organised by CIIE to promote the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship,” adds Gokhale. “Many students have also received sponsorship to fund their projects and have used these opportunities as a springboard to leap towards entrepreneurship.” ■

Innovative approaches to teaching and learning
“Canadian University Dubai’s programmes are inspired by entrepreneurship, creativity, and innovation. The recent expansion to City Walk adds to student life by hosting state-of-the-art amenities tailored to a new advanced teaching model,” says Prof. Karim Chelli, President and Vice Chancellor, Canadian University Dubai.

“By adopting a non-conventional approach to teaching and learning, CUD provides students with an international academic experience based on the Canadian curriculum. CUD offers over 30 undergraduate programmes, as well as the unique opportunity to collaborate with senior faculty on applied research projects, and to explore innovation and entrepreneurship through our student business incubator.”