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In an Arab University, an Advocate of Diversity

SHARJAH—Students gradually fill up an expansive lecture hall, and it’s standing room only by the time the professor walks in.

The room hushes as he begins to talk.

Fadi Aloul is a professor of computer science and engineering at the American University of Sharjah. He ushers 900 students each year through an introduction to engineering.

He keeps them engaged so the department can keep students into the following year, while helping them figure out which discipline of engineering they are interested in.

He has almost no money to spend on the course, so it has to be done cheaply, which means he relies on volunteers to help. This thriftiness has gained him international recognition.

When he speaks, every now and then he firmly shushes little pockets of chatter that flare up, but mostly he keeps his students’ attention. He is resolute but approachable.

“He knows exactly when to be dead serious and when he can ease up and include some humor in his lecture,” says one of his former students, Catrine ElSayegh from Gaza.

As he slowly paces the stage back and forth, he looks out at a surprisingly varied audience. Diversity is not a trait often applied to the field of engineering, but that’s something he has worked on since he was put in charge of the course, along with energizing the prospective engineers.

“I was a fresh graduate myself with no white hair,” he recalls. “I was told to approach these students and excite them.”

In addition to sorting each freshman into one of the seven different engineering concentrations, Aloul has also taken it upon himself to get students ready for life after university.

“High schools here fail to help students decide what careers to choose. They’re concerned about getting them into university,” he laments. “The students are only worried about their GPA but have no clue what they actually like.”

Aloul says experiencing classroom diversity—studying with people of different nationalities, religions, political leanings, and genders—is key to making sure his students will be able to thrive in the workplace.

“If you don’t know how to deal with different people, you’ll never succeed,” he says defiantly. “I believe diversity is the driver of success in companies.”

To date, Aloul, who grew up in the United Arab Emirates but studied at Lawrence Technological University near Detroit, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, in the United States, has attracted students from 92 nationalities to his course. On average, 35 percent of them are female.

Engineering human resources data is hard to come by for the Arab world, but statistics from other parts of the world paint a picture of a profession dominated by white men. According to a review on engineering skills commissioned by the British government, less than ten percent of engineers in the United Kingdom are women. Germany fares better, at over 15 percent.

A 2011 report by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering in the United States said blacks and Latinos make up just five and 6.2 percent of the engineering workforce, respectively, despite representing 12 and 16 percent of the total U.S. population.

In light of such statistics, Aloul is clearly proud that his numbers show a more diverse classroom. When he talks about the variety of faces in the auditorium, his voice becomes animated.

This enthusiasm is something that keeps students from different backgrounds engaged, says ElSayegh. “Dr Fadi is a unique educator; not only does he teach his students, but he inspires, leads and guides them with patience, passion, and professionalism.”

Each year, he groups the students into purposefully diverse teams for an engineering competition.

They usually have to build a structure, which then has to withstand a resilience test. Last year the students were tasked with building a fast and lightweight soapbox-style car using materials like plastic bottle caps and CDs.

This year students have to build a boat out of little more than toothpicks and glue. A bottle of water will be dropped on the completed boats from above. The lightest boat that doesn’t submerge will crowned be the winner.

Crucial to this exercise is not just the design and production, but learning to collaborate with team members of different backgrounds. He refuses requests from students to change teams to be with others more like themselves. People have to learn to work together, he declares. “Diversity is a must.”

That’s something that impressed Jacqui Chan, the head of diversity and inclusion at the aviation giant Airbus and Airbus Group. “Clearly there’s something about this course which is attracting a diverse cohort,” she said. “People unanimously agree on his enthusiasm and ability to engage.”

In partnership with the Global Engineering Deans Council, Airbus Group runs an award that seeks to recognize grassroots efforts to promote diversity in engineering education.

It’s the third year that the award has been given, and this year Aloul was selected as the recipient at a ceremony in Australia on December 1st.

Aloul was pleased to receive the award and was gratified even to have been selected as a finalist. “The fact that I was shortlisted,” he says, “is proof that the course evaluations and retention rates are good.”

From Airbus Group’s perspective, a course that attracts such student diversity is something that other universities could easily duplicate because its cost is low.

“What we don’t want is for diversity to become something that’s only achievable with lots of money,” says Chan. “Really it’s a reflection on him as a person that he was able to get people to volunteer and give up their time to keep costs down.”

While Aloul’s students may not all go willingly into a diverse team, they leave the process with respect for him. “His students commented that although they have official advisors, most of them maintained a relationship with him and asked him for advice after the course,” says Chan.

Diversity in engineering seems to be increasing slowly by itself, says Chan. “I’ve seen the pool of people coming through change over the years. We could allow this natural change, or we could be proactive and help it come faster.”

When it comes to increasing the number of women and minorities in top engineering jobs at companies like Airbus Group, the first step is to make sure that enough of them stay interested in studying engineering at university. Through his firm yet amicable approach, Aloul is doing his bit.

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