Building connections between the Institute and countries in the Arab world

April 18, 2017
Caroline Knox | MISTI

Launched in 2014, the MIT-Arab World Program — a part of MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) — was created in an effort to strengthen ties between MIT and countries of the Arab World. Through student projects and faculty collaborations, the program offers opportunities for immersive and meaningful interaction in the region with the aim to empower participants to be bridges between MIT, the United States and the Arab World.

“At this pivotal time in the Middle East, the MIT-Arab World Program seeks to build critical scientific and cultural connections between MIT and the Arabic-speaking world,” says Philip Khoury, MIT Associate Provost, Ford International Professor of History, and the MIT-Arab World faculty director. Like his fellow MISTI faculty directors, Khoury sets the strategic path for the program in collaboration with the program’s managing director.

Student activities

MIT-Arab World’s main activity is a 12-week student internship program for MIT undergrads and graduate students looking to experience the workplace in companies and universities in the Arab World. Over the past two years, 14 MIT students have been matched with professional internships in Jordan and Morocco. Building on their course of study, students worked with small startups, non-governmental organizations, and global companies rooted in the Arab World including Turath, Petra Engineering, CurlstoneTamatem, OCP, and the University Hassan II of Casablanca.

Like all MISTI internship programs, MIT-Arab World strives to help its students develop intercultural skills through hands-on experience working alongside international colleagues. “I was relieved to discover that I could indeed cross the boundaries of language and culture to do good work with others,” shares MIT-Arab World intern Elisa Young, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science. At Jordanian host companies Curl Stone Entertainment, an animation studio that creates stories and heroes for young audiences in the Arab-speaking world, and Tatamen, a mobile gaming startup that produces games and apps for the MENA region, Young was immersed in distinctively Middle Eastern animation and gaming. “I felt like the Middle East gets little media and entertainment coverage that is not related to conflicts in the region,” Young says. “I wanted to more deeply understand their culture and learn about the reality of the people by living in their midst. During her time in Amman, Young not only learned to navigate a new culture and society in everyday life, but she also learned to incorporate cultural aspects — such as specific fonts, colors, and gameplay elements better suited to tastes in the region — in her work.

In addition to the internship program, MIT-Arab World offers teaching opportunities to MIT students through MISTI’s Global Teaching Labs (GTL) program. For 3-4 weeks over MIT’s Independent Activities Period in January, students teach STEM and entrepreneurship courses to high school students in Arab states. In 2016, the first cohort of 11 students traveled to Jordan, where they broke into three teams to teach STEM, entrepreneurship, and 3-D printing at King’s Academy in Madaba, Jubilee School in Amman, and the 3Dmena Maker Space in Amman. “I was teaching but I was also learning at the same time,” explains Evan Denmark, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science who taught physics to a 9th grade class at King’s Academy. “I had to learn how to engage my students and better understand how they learned most effectively.”

In January, another 17 students taught high school students and Syrian refugees in Jordan and Morocco through GTL. Excited for a chance to return to the region, Denmark traveled to Jordan this with this group to film peer MIT students teaching in the field. “Being a photographer and videographer, I wanted to make my own documentary about this region and MIT’s educational initiatives here,” he says. “Because of my own GTL experience, I had the confidence to explore my opportunities; to take my own project and technical skills I learned at MIT and then bring them to places across the world.”

As part of the MISTI program, MIT-Arab World interns and GTL students are required to participate in a series of cultural training modules covering topics such as cross-cultural communication, current events, technology, and innovation in the host country. These sessions, combined with MIT coursework, ensure that students have a rich experience that broadens their academic, professional, and personal horizons and prepares them to be global leaders in their field of study.

Faculty funds

The MISTI Global Seed Funds (GSF), which support early-stage collaborations between MIT researchers and their counterparts around the globe, has supported faculty projects in the Arab world since 2014. Encouraged to include MIT students in their projects, MIT faculty grantees use the funds to meet and work with their international peers with the aim of developing and launching joint research projects.

“The award allows the project to move forward as it gives the opportunity for the members of the two teams to meet and work together hand-by-hand and get to exchange their expertise,” explains MIT-Egypt Seed Fund grantee and MIT Professor Vladamir Bulović, associate dean for innovation in the MIT School of Engineering, MacVicar Fellow, and the Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Chair in Emerging Technology. Working in collaboration with Nageh Allam, assistant professor at the American University in Cairo, Bulović set out to construct high performance, affordable, and air-stable inorganic photoelectrochemical devices to enable long-term, scalable solar energy conversion and storage. “Our two teams shared their ideas about their work experience, and how they can mix their fabrication techniques in one single device. This cooperation revealed the capability to mix both techniques to build one single device based on the experience of the two teams to enhance the performance of the solar cell devices.”

Over the past three years, faculty from the Arab world and MIT faculty have received eight grants to work in Egypt and Jordan. Project topics include design modifications to refugee camps; water and energy; and health. The MISTI GSF 2016-2017 cycle has ended, but the 2017-18 call for proposals will launch this May.

MIT-Arab World

This past year 24 students and five faculty collaborated closely with their counterparts through the MIT-Arab World Program. Going forward, the program’s leaders plan to develop more opportunities for MIT students to engage with the region, offer more faculty funds for collaboration in the region as a whole, promote the study of Arabic and strengthen the region-specific educational training.

MISTI is a part of the Center for International Studies, a program at the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (SHASS).

This article was republished with permission from the MIT News Office.