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When the Abu Dhabi University (ADU) initiated a strategic partnership with Al Nahda National Schools (ANNS) earlier this month, the move, according to ADU Chancellor, Professor Ghassan Aouad was part of a consolidated effort by the university body to promote creative growth among the UAE’s student fraternity.

Professor Ghassan Aouad

“In the pursuit of nurturing critical and creative thinking among its students, ADU has embarked on a journey of innovation and collaboration,” says Prof. Aouad, while speaking exclusively to GN Focus. “ADU recognises the pressing need for graduates who can excel in the 21st-century global landscape, equipped with skills that extend beyond the classroom.

“The collaboration with ANNS encompasses various initiatives designed to enhance students' awareness of their academic interests and preferences. Joint projects and events focusing on research, culture, social activities, and sports are on the horizon, fostering an environment ripe for creative exploration.”

ADU also embraced a holistic approach to innovation and problem-solving through ADU Innovate and the ADUi Lab for Public Services.

“The ADUi Lab for Governance, in particular, stands as a testament to ADU's commitment to effective governance,” says Prof. Aouad. Specialists in this lab work across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and government levels, emphasising the importance of interdisciplinary, collaborative solutions, he adds.

Top universities in the UAE are constantly breaking convention to explore paths less charted as a means to follow unique and innovative methods of imparting learning to enhance and upskill its students as they prepare for unique career options.

Empowering a community of learners

At the American University of Sharjah (AUS), students are getting to experience the benefits of hands-on learning, interactive methods and project-based coursework, a powerful bouquet of instruments to help empower them to foster critical and creative thinking.

Dr Mohamed El Tarhuni, Interim Provost and Chief Academic Officer, AUS, says, “This approach shifts them from passive learners to active problem solvers, preparing them for the evolving job market.

Dr Mohamed El Tarhuni

“Our curricula are also continuously updated to include the latest trends and technologies, while our distinguished faculty members contribute to advances in emerging fields, influence other research projects across the world, and offer students the opportunity to engage in cutting-edge research, which has been a key driver for critical and creative thinking. Encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration is another vital aspect of our approach, promoting novel solutions by bringing together students, alumni and faculty from diverse backgrounds.”

Collaborate with purpose

For Hanil Das, Co-Founder and CEO, Westford University College, the phrase, fostering innovation is all about creating an environment that encourages the exploration of new ideas, methodologies and technologies in the pursuit of improved learning outcomes.

Hanil Das

“It means providing students and faculty at Westford the freedom and resources to think creatively, experiment, and develop innovative solutions to real-world problems,” says Das. However, he also cautions that collaboration just for the sake of earning brownie points among student communities and the peer network of higher education institutions is not the way to go. Das is emphatic about the fact that partnerships need to be shored up with purpose while aligning with the university’s and the UAE’s long-term education goals.

“Before initiating collaborations or partnerships with a corporate client, we ensure that our goals, values, and objectives are aligned," says Das. "We have corporate partners who share a commitment to education and are willing to invest in initiatives that benefit students. Collaborations can aid students by providing access to real-world experiences, internships, and industry insights."

Facing challenges in establishing creative thinking

Collaborations provide a whole set of positives for higher education institutions, but nurturing a creative thinking mindset and attitude among students presents its own set of challenges for higher education institutions to overcome. Privy to a bird’s eye view of both cause and effect, Prof. Aouad of ADU believes the university is addressing the issue by redefining its educational approach, emphasising upon something he calls graduate attributes.

“These attributes are a set of skills, including adaptability and critical thinking, that prepare graduates not only for the job market but also for a lifetime of learning and leadership,” says Prof. Aouad. “ADU has incorporated sustainability, artificial intelligence, and technology into its programmes to ensure that students are well-equipped to tackle the challenges and opportunities of the modern world.”

Prepare for success

Rigid curricula, standardised testing, and a lack of resources for innovative teaching methods are also barriers to creating an ecosystem for creative thinking among students, feels Das of Westford. To address these challenges, the institution is looking at implementing flexible, learner-centric curricula that encourages creativity and critical thinking.

“We will also invest in professional development for faculty to foster innovative teaching practices,” adds Das. “Furthermore, we aim to create physical and virtual spaces that stimulate creativity and collaboration among students. By continuously evaluating and adapting our approach, we strive to break down these barriers and empower students to think creatively and solve complex problems, preparing them for success in a rapidly changing world.

Embrace real-world opportunities

The UAE’s top universities recognise the need to embrace the innovation ecosystem extending beyond university campus walls, just so students and teachers get to explore opportunities and put their creative thinking to test in the real world.

Dr Tarhuni of AUS succinctly encapsulates the thought when he says, “To ensure that our students and faculty have real-world opportunities to apply their creative ideas, we actively seek partnerships and collaborations with industry leaders and organisations, both locally and globally. AUS faculty have a strong international research network, with more than 55 per cent of the research being conducted with international collaborators.

“Recent initiatives involve accelerating IT innovation and fostering open technologies for future connectivity. Joint research projects, internships and experiential learning programs empower our students with practical experience while contributing to innovative solutions. Our dedication to fostering creative growth and innovation is evident in all our academic and research endeavours, empowering our community to explore, create and innovate as the world evolves.”