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An Established Institution Offering Unrivaled Engineering Excellence

Interview - December 19, 2014

Texas A&M Qatar began with an inaugural class in September 2003, teaching the same curricula taught at the main campus in College Station, TX. Since then, the university has graduated over 400 engineers and continues to grow as a leader for engineering studies in the region.

MR. MARK H. WEICHOLD, DEAN OF TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY
MR. MARK H. WEICHOLD | DEAN OF TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY

Could you share with us how Texas A&M arrived in Qatar as a part of the National Vision?

Texas A&M University at Qatar has been in existence since the fall of 2003. When we were asked to consider coming here as part of the Education City enterprise, Her Highness Sheikha Moza assured us of many different things, including the autonomy to choose our student admission process, academic freedom and so forth.

One thing she mentioned that really made a difference for me was her vision for Education City and the branch campuses to be a mechanism to bridge cultures. I think that has been very significant and continues to be important; we are seeing, over time, how it has affected positive development. We are very interested in bringing students and faculty from the main campus to Doha. I believe making those exchanges is valuable, and I think the cultural exchange that she had in mind is alive and well here. I think that is relevant to your question because it is beginning to be more pervasive in that people are feeling more comfortable about understanding each other’s culture outside of Education City.

As I mentioned, we started classes in the fall of 2003, and a few years later, in 2006-2007, we began to focus our efforts on contributing to Qatar National Vision 2030. Texas A&M at Qatar realized that while it was clear in QNV 2030 that Qatar would work to establish a knowledge-based economy, education had to be not only an important component, but higher education would have to be present, as well as research and graduate studies programs. I believe the presence of not just Texas A&M, but also all of the branch campuses here have already contributed a great deal in moving towards a knowledge-based economy.

Changing from a hydrocarbon-based economy to a knowledge-based one is not something that is going to happen over night. Considerable infrastructure has to be put in place, and by that we are talking about the human infrastructure, the thinkers and the doers. We are making great strides, particularly in the last few years, developing the foundation for that before that human infrastructure can be put in place. That foundational work includes various mechanisms to fund students to go to graduate school, to fund research and to create an environment that will be conducive to the creation of technology.

I believe that the country is moving in the right direction to achieve the goals and aspirations of the Qatar National Vision. Education City and Texas A&M at Qatar are also contributing a great deal to those efforts, not just in terms of human and social pillars but, in the case of Texas A&M at Qatar, also the economic and environmental pillars.

As Qatar experiences this educational renaissance, colleges and universities look to pave the way for long-term sustainable development. Would you please discuss with us the recent educational renaissance of the Qatari education system, particularly here at Education City?

This period of growth presents a very unique opportunity. In the time I have been Dean, I have had many conversations with visitors who ask about the model here at Education City. It is a very unique model. Not many countries could afford to have six or eight world-known institutions come here and offer their degrees, so it is uncommon in that aspect. However, it is also unique in the opportunities it provides to the students and to faculty. On a very basic level, we have developed a mechanism for cross-registering students so that Texas A&M at Qatar’s engineering students, for instance, are required to take a course in the visual performing arts. We offer these classes, but a number of our students choose to walk across campus to Virginia Commonwealth University and take an art history class there. So, every semester we will have two or three dozen of our students taking courses on the other campuses and a few dozen students coming here from other campuses.

Taking into account the unique environment that Education City offers, how would you compare and contrast higher education in Qatar versus the United States or United Kingdom?

There are some good comparisons that I could make. In a first approximation, I would say the experience the students get here is very much a Western experience in the sense that we work hard to develop the critical thinking skills our students would be expected to have in the US or in Europe. So, those sorts of similarities exist here. The curricula we teach here is exactly the same as we have at main campus.

Now, differences. First of all, the students here are generally bilingual or trilingual, whereas in the US that is not so common. Maybe in Texas you can find more bilingual students who are able to speak English and Spanish, but the majority of our students at the main campus are monolingual. Here, the students, almost without exception, speak English and Arabic and perhaps French or something else, so that is a very different experience.

We have more than 30 nationalities represented here at the Texas A&M at Qatar campus. When we think about that number of nationalities represented across maybe 500 students, that is quite a diversity. We may have 30 or more nationalities in the main campus, but that is spread across thousands of students; so the diversity here is much more dense. Another difference we have here compared to the main campus is the percentage of female enrollees in the undergraduate engineering program. At the Doha campus, it will typically be around 38 and 40 percent and in North America and Europe females usually comprise about 18 or 20 percent of the undergraduates. Another similarity, just like in North America and Europe, is that females work harder than their male counterparts to excel and tend to have better grades. So, really, we are very pleased to have a high percentage of females here because it raises the bar for everyone to try a little harder and achieve more as a result.

Could you share with us the important role STEM postgraduates play in economic growth in driving innovation, undertaking research and providing entrepreneurship?

For Texas A&M, here and in College Station, STEM is very important. STEM is obviously our lifeblood here because we are an engineering campus and I think STEM is going to be important for the future of the State of Qatar as it moves towards a knowledge-based economy. It is too early to predict exactly where the influence of STEM will be; it might be medicine, it might be engineering, it might be something we do not currently anticipate, but I think it is going to be essential for students in Qatar to work hard in the STEM areas. That, of course, is not to say at the exclusion of the arts and humanities. That is one thing, I think, that is powerful about the curricula we teach here. We have engineering students taking History, English and Political Science. We provide a well-rounded education, and that is one of the mechanisms we employ to enhance our students’ critical thinking skills.

Another significant similarity between here and Texas is that it is really hard to get young people to have a lot of excitement about the STEM fields. We have taken it upon ourselves to begin work with the local high schools and middle schools to begin igniting the spark of discovery that is necessary to get students excited about choosing the best sequence of math, to take more than just the required science classes and that sort of thing. So, as a result, we hold workshops for groups of STEM teachers in high schools to help them to be better science and math teachers and engage students here on campus in our labs and classrooms. This spring we hosted 80 high school students for an engineering camp. They came here for a week, learned what engineering was all about, performed some fun experiments, and I would like to think they went back exited about what they experienced here and maybe changed their thinking about engineering.

Also for the first time, in partnership with Maersk Oil Qatar, we have recognized the State of Qatar's STEM Educator of the Year, which awards excellence and innovation in STEM teaching. We have to do what we can to begin to fill the pipeline that is going to provide us with our future students. There is data that even points to grades four and five as being a critical time for students to make the decision regarding whether they like math and science or they do not. If you do not reach back and begin to show them that it can be an interesting, worthwhile and rewarding career path, then you have lost them.

That said, I think we are doing a good job preparing graduates who have careers in the STEM areas. In addition, the State of Qatar, through the Qatar National Research Fund and Qatar Foundation, is really taking it to the next level with the research and development funding they are providing to us, as well as to Qatar’s research institutes.

Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) in the past few years has changed their direction a bit to continue to have the presence of corporate research laboratories, but in addition, to see a move to help clever people commercialize their ideas. Technology incubators, if you want to call them that, is the direction that I see QSTP moving towards in the future. I think as those efforts begin to take root and more people move university research into commercial realization; this will play a tremendous role in the pursuit of a knowledge-based economy.

You mentioned Qatar Foundation. Could we jump back and discuss Qatar Foundation’s relationship with Texas A&M and how it all started?

The first contact the Qatar Foundation made with Texas A&M was in 2000, and in the fall of 2001, they invited us to consider establishing the branch campus. Texas A&M’s president at that time considered it and in the spring of 2002 made the decision to explore that possibility and the opportunities it presented. The attraction to Qatar Foundation of Texas A&M was based on the strength of its petroleum engineering program. With all of the oil and gas here, that was a natural thing, but in addition to getting the oil and gas out of the ground you have to do something with it. This is usually done by chemical engineers in petrochemical plants. Of course, it is not just chemical engineers who do that, but also mechanical and electrical engineers.

So, Qatar Foundation asked Texas A&M to consider offering the four programs I just mentioned here in Doha. In the summer of 2002, a group from the main campus visited Doha and we reported to the president our opinion that the University should pursue this opportunity. Over the next 12 months, I was part of the team that began to put together the first agreement with Qatar Foundation. That agreement was signed in May of 2003, and then literally 107 days later it all began. We started classes with a modest number of 29 students that first semester and had seven faculty members and 11 staff the first year, so the operation was quite small compared to the current state of our campus.

How did you find encouraging people to come and work in Qatar?

Anytime you have a partnership such as the one we share with Qatar Foundation, it has to be good for both partners. So, Texas A&M’s attraction was that it had a strong and visionary program. We also had top petroleum, chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering programs and that would be a benefit to Qatar Foundation. The benefit to Texas A&M was at least two fold. At the time, Texas A&M was becoming very focused on extending its global reach and presence, so this was a good mechanism to do just that. At that time, we had established study centers in Italy and in Mexico City. However, this branch campus would operate far beyond that because the study centers were places to study abroad; they were not institutions like Texas A&M at Qatar. So, that fit well with the globalization concept that then-President Gates had envisioned for Texas A&M.

The other thing we were attracted to was the prospect of engaging in some very unique research opportunities here in Qatar. When you think about the size of the oil and gas fields, these are technologically impressive. Of course, behind all of that is a lot of very interesting research and our faculty found that to be attractive.

Please elaborate on the academic collaborations and partnerships between the university and local Qatari businesses and institutions, (e.g. internship programs, MOUs) which have been formed in order to encourage a strong education-human resource link.

I think university-government-industry collaboration is something that is at the core of Texas A&M. Certainly, the scientific and technical communities here are major elements in our constituent group. You mentioned internships and the petroleum engineering program actually requires its students to engage in at least one internship experience prior to graduation. The other three programs do not require it, but it is strongly encouraged. As a result, typically 80 percent or more of our students have had an internship experience by the time they graduate.

We work extensively with local companies to provide meaningful internship experiences, both for the students and our partner companies. In addition to that, we work very hard to get our students placed in good positions after graduation. When I first arrived, I attended a session that was a precursor to what eventually led to the Qatar Vision 2030, and at that meeting they were projecting that by 2015 the country would require a net addition of 6,000 engineers. That was before 2022 had been on anyone’s radar. So now, with all of the infrastructure development underway surrounding that, there is a tremendous need for engineers here. So, yes, there is a big demand and I think we are working to provide those engineers.

With all eyes on Qatar as it stages to deliver the 1st World Cup in the region, what do you expect the impact of Qatar 2022 to be on Texas A&M at Qatar, and most importantly the field of engineering, as it attracts visitors to the state from all over the world, many for the first time?

I think preparations for the World Cup in 2022 will affect Texas A&M at Qatar most, in a near term, in that there will be a tremendous amount of construction. The infrastructure of electrical and water lines certainly, but also highways, roads, and the rail system. There is also lot of building construction that will be taking place. There are obvious things such as hotels to serve the guests, but then also there are going to be needs for people to provide the labor for those hotels once they are up and running. The construction of the stadiums themselves presents some interesting challenges, because if the games are held in the summer some kind of cooling is going to have to be present, so there is a very interesting challenge there.

But then, after 2022 has passed and we have all of this infrastructure in place,  these things will continue to operate and evolve.. We will continue to expand the rail and road systems, as well as water and electricity. I think we are going to see a big demand in the short term for additional engineers to manage this growth. I do not think that this is going to drop significantly because after the finish of 2022, we are only eight years away from the target of having a knowledge-based economy. So, if I am a young person thinking about a career field and I am in Qatar, this is a really great field to go into; it really is.

There are the obvious elements of growth and development like I have mentioned, but then there is also remote health and other opportunities. For instance, there will be athletes training and preparing here and they have to transmit information back to the coaches, and remote health will play a part there. The infrastructure that I did not mention was the communication infrastructure. You can imagine the stress all of these visitors are going to place on the mobile network, as everyone will be communicating via the Internet. So, this is much more than just a series of football games.

A report launched at No 11 Downing Street by EngineeringUK on 3 December highlights the need to double the number of annual recruits into engineering to 2020 to meet expected demand. Engineering companies are projected to have 2.74 million job openings from 2010 – 2020, 1.86 million of which will need engineering skills. Do any collaborations between Texas A&M and UK institutions currently exist? How could Texas A&M position itself to partner with the United Kingdom in order to promote STEM education and engineering degrees in order to meet expected demands?

We have partnerships with a number of institutions in the UK. In electrical engineering, we are looking at renewables and energy storage among other concerns with Strathclyde University. In mechanical engineering, we are collaborating with Swansea University, looking at the monitoring of turbines for the transport of natural gas. In chemical engineering, we have had much interaction with UK institutions, but the one I would point to in particular is the work that has been ongoing with the GTL plant, the world’s largest gas-to-liquid plant that it is run by Shell. The process takes methane and converts it into products that range from wax to diesel to jet fuel. In this field, we have been working with a Cambridge University researcher looking at the way the methane is converted into these other materials through this process. The unique thing about that technology is that we are working with Cambridge to look at MRI techniques to actually observe almost in situ the transition of the molecule from methane to CH and C10 fuels.

In chemistry we are working with Imperial College to look at the creation and characterization of polymers. We are also looking at other types of polymers in conjunction with Imperial believing that, the more diverse the set of products a country can produce the better it is for the market share. Another Imperial collaboration involves quantum engineering. Many are saying the next computation milestone to be passed is in exploring the unusual quantum mechanical behaviors of matter, so our researchers are working with Imperial to reduce the theoretical possibilities to practice, to take these quantum mechanical concepts and actually build quantum computation devices and machines.

These are just a few examples of our collaboration with some British institutions, but there are other partners beyond these.

Having already left behind an impressive legacy in College Station and Texas, how would you like to shape your legacy here at Texas A&M at Qatar, and what advice would you give to aspiring engineers on studying here?

One of the things that has been very rewarding to me is being part of this exceptional experiment that began15 years ago in Qatar and to be part of building upon it to where Texas A&M at Qatar is today, but also to where Education City is today. It has been very rewarding. I believe the legacy here would be to have played this role in establishing Texas A&M’s presence in Qatar, and not just in teaching engineering classes, but also in bringing values and ideals to the students, faculty and staff here that mirror what we have in College Station. It would include the education, the research and the outreach that we accomplish in the community. If I can leave that legacy behind, I would be extremely proud.

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