by Leila Nilipour
We all know it exists, but to most of us at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston, the sister teaching location in Ras Al Khaimah seems like an abstract concept that exists somewhere in the Middle East.
The initiative started in 2006, when the Ras Al Khaimah government decided that it wanted to be known as the education and health care hub of the Gulf States and South Asia, in addition to a tourist destination. Among other projects, their plan was to develop a graduate degree in nutrition based in Ras Al Khaimah. Their research led them to the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University as the ideal institution to partner-up with. That’s when the first Friedman visit to Ras Al Khaimah took place, and only a year later, Tufts University and the Ras Al Khaimah government were already hiring distance learning and instructional design experts.
Dr. Lynne Ausman, the “Saqr Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi Professor in International Nutrition”, is the director of the Master of Nutrition Science and Policy program, in the Ras Al Khaimah teaching location, which officially opened its doors to students in 2009.
The Master of Nutrition Science and Policy program uses a revolutionary model of teaching known as hybrid learning, which braces the best features of face-to-face teaching with those of online learning. According to Dr. Ausman, this teaching model has a better record of learning than face-to-face or online, since it promotes active and independent learning.
The program consists of eight courses, which are conducted over four semesters, including an intensive residency period of about ten days per semester, in Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates. The remainder of each course is done through distance learning. Students are able to get involved in projects, activities, and group discussions through the web, and professors stay in contact with them via Skype -a popular software that allows users to chat and make voice or video calls over the Internet for free-, for feedback, and to make them feel like a part of a community. The program culminats with a project or research-based thesis.
When asked about the teaching experience, Dr. Ausman said it is a lot more work to prepare for lectures, because they need to know everything before class. Their face-to-face time is very limited so, unlike the Boston classes, professors can’t go back and look up the answer to a challenging question for the next class.
The Ras Al Khaimah students are very diverse. This year’s class has twelve students, and like the Boston campus, the population of women is larger, with only one man enrolled in the program. They come from many different countries, and are mostly mid-career students with significant work experience. Dr. Ausman is very enthusiastic about teaching people who would never be able to quit their jobs and leave their families to attend school in a different continent. She said that “Education should be for everyone and they [Ras Al Khaimah students] need education as much as everyone else. So meeting a group of students who are really happy to have a chance to improve, and watching them grow and nurture is very catalytic.”
The nutritional problems in the Middle East region -obesity, diabetes, nutritional deficiencies- reflect those prevalent in the U.S. The cities in those regions are very spread-out and the extreme temperatures throughout the year do not make it enjoyable to walk outdoors. So the populations in these regions get little or no exercise. In addition, vitamin D deficiency is common, because the heat keeps people indoors. Not only that, but women in the region cover up their body for traditional and religious purposes, further reducing the amount of sunlight the skin receives. There is also a lot of iron deficiency among kids. Dr. Ausman commented, “It’s going to take something major to try to make some big changes; a whole community to change things.”
In creating opportunities for Boston and Ras Al Khaimah students to interact, Dr. Ausman mentioned that it has been discussed. The students might be introduced to one another through Skype, and the dietitians at Ras Al Khaimah could meet the Tufts Frances Stern Nutrition Center students to compare practices. There is also talk about offering the Ras Al Khaimah students the opportunity to do a semester in Boston, as well as giving Boston students the opportunity to visit Ras Al Khaimah.
“Students seem the same worldwide, eager to learn, and that makes the faculty excited. It doesn’t matter where they are from, how they dress or what their age is. They’re all there to try to make a difference.” she added.
Dr. Robert Houser is an Assistant Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. This year is his second year teaching statistics to the Ras Al Khaimah students. On Tuesday, September 21st, he got up at 3:30 am to get to the Boston Logan International Airport on time for his flight to New York. From there, he took a direct 13-hour flight to Dubai, where he arrived at 8:00 am local time. He was greeted by 100F weather after 24 hours of travel. Wednesday was off, and offered time to adjust to the time difference, and to prepare for lectures. The new student orientation took place on Thursday and classes began on Friday.
The statistics course that Dr. Houser teaches in Ras Al Khaimah is comparable to the one taken by the Tufts Frances Stern Nutrition Center students. He noted that it is a rewarding teaching experience, because the Ras Al Khaimah students are very enthusiastic about learning. Many Boston students have not worked a full-time job yet, so they’re not used to having long days, but Ras Al Khaimah students are used to working hard, and being in class from nine to five doesn’t really bother them.
Last year, when he visited the United Arab Emirates for the first time, he didn’t know what to expect from such a different country. However, he mentioned that it was a very enjoyable experience, and added that meeting the new cohort of students was exciting. He said, “There are a lot of misconceptions about the culture, and people in the U.S. don’t realize how small the world is and how similar we all are.”
I spoke via Skype to Fatemeh Sahrapour, a first year student of Persian descent in the Master of Nutrition Science and Policy program. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, she worked in a clinical lab for two years and then moved to the UAE for a year. While searching for graduate schools in nutrition in the UAE, she came across the program offered through Tufts. She moved back to Texas and applied to the program, with the intention of going back to the Middle East eventually. So, in the morning, when you’re thinking about how long your commute takes to the Boston campus, think about Fatemeh, who commutes to Ras Al Khaimah from Texas. “It is a great option for people who have ties to both the Middle Eastern region and the West, since the Masters degree is accredited in both the UAE and the US.” Fatemeh said.
For Fatemeh, the whole experience so far has been wonderful, whether it was traveling every day from the hotel to the medical school classrooms where classes are held in Ras Al Khaimah, or all the one-on-one time they get with each professor. She hasn’t decided on a topic for her thesis project yet, but mentioned that a food policy focus seems interesting at this point.
When I asked her what she thought would be the biggest challenge of the program, she replied: “Having no nutrition background, the subject in itself will be a challenge to learn. A positive challenge. I have taken online classes in the past, so it takes a lot; you have to be on top of the game.”
In addition to the Master of Nutrition Science and Policy program, the Tufts University and Ras Al Khaimah partnership also includes continuing education courses for health care and public health professionals, as well as the design of a nutrition and wellness centre in Ras Al Khaimah. This is hopefully the first of several future partnerships with international governments. Nutrition problems are present worldwide, but they vary by region. Training the local professionals in other regions of the world is key to tackling the nutrition problems that are unique to them.
If you would like to learn more about the current Tufts and Ras Al Khaimah partnership, make sure to visit http://rak.nutrition.tufts.edu/
Leila Nilipour is Panamanian/Iranian with a passion for food and nutrition. She has a dream of becoming the next great Latin American novelist.