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Iraq connection: Students and faculty benefit from emerging collaborations

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Iraq connection: Students and faculty benefit from emerging collaborations

Bahaa Kazem, Iraq Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MOHESR) director general for scholarships and cultural affairs, poses with MU Engineering representatives Vlad Likholetov, Keshab Gangopadhyay and Engineering Dean Jim Thompson.

Bahaa Kazem, Iraq Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MOHESR) director general for scholarships and cultural affairs, poses with MU Engineering representatives Vlad Likholetov, Keshab Gangopadhyay and Engineering Dean Jim Thompson.

On Aug. 7, the University of Missouri College of Engineering signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MOHESR). Previously, a similar memorandum was signed with Iraq’s Higher Committee of Education Development (HCED).

Unlike the MOUs with specific operational targets signed by Mizzou Engineering with a variety of universities in China, Korea, India and Egypt, the Iraqi one is an umbrella that presents a broader framework for multiple projects with several universities.

“This is a top-down agreement,” said Keshab Gangopadhyay, an MU electrical and computer engineering research professor who has worked closely with Vlad Likholetov, the college’s director of international partnerships, to lay groundwork for the agreement. “By establishing this MOU directly with the granting agencies that provide scholarships, it eliminates one bureaucratic step because Iraqi universities will not have to sign individual MOUs, but rather, focus on activity- and project-specific agreements.”

The memorandum is the gateway to a variety of potential areas of academic collaboration between the College of Engineering and the Iraqi academic community, including undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdocs and faculty members.

“Iraq is a great opportunity,” said Jim Thompson, dean of the College of Engineering, regarding the country’s need for well-trained engineers. “They have many challenges with water quality, roads, power distribution and many other things. They are educating students to do those things and the Iraqi government is sending thousands of scholarship-supported students abroad.”

MU Engineering’s Coordinated Undergraduate Degree Program allows undergraduate engineering students from Iraq to complete two years at their home institutions and then transfer to MU to complete the remaining two years of their degree.

Under the college’s Collaborative Academic Program, students earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in three phases. In the first phase, they complete three years of undergraduate coursework at their home institution in Iraq and in phase two, students complete the final year of their undergraduate coursework at MU earning a bachelor’s degree from their home institution. In phase three, students complete the coursework for a master’s degree from MU.

Since 2010, the college has been accepting Iraqi graduate students under the umbrella of the Iraqi Education Initiative, an ambitious study abroad program. Operated by the Iraqi government, the program provides $100 million annually for graduate study abroad. MU was one of the initial participants in the program and the first 10 students graduated in the spring of 2013 with master’s degrees.

Visit to Iraq

Iraqi students attend an expo of American universities.

Iraqi students attend an expo of American universities.

In September, Thompson traveled to Baghdad and Kurdistan with a contingent from MU to participate in an education exposition attended by more than 60 colleges and universities from the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. It was held in Al-Rasheed hotel in the city’s green zone, where each school set up a display and as many as 3,000 Iraqi students “shopped” for educational opportunities.

“It started with a gathering of about 300 dignitaries,” said Thompson. “Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke, followed by Zuhair Humadi, general director of Iraq’s Higher Committee of Education Development.”

Ambassadors from the U.S., Australia and the U.K. also made presentations before students began circulating to talk to college representatives. MU’s table, staffed by Becky Showmaker, director of sponsored student programs, and Kifayah Al-Saffar, an MU Engineering representative in Iraq, attracted a lot of attention from potential applicants.

“What the students were most interested in is engineering and Ph.D.s,” Thompson said. “Eventually, schools put up signs if they didn’t offer engineering or have graduate programs.”

“Thompson said both the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the University of Kansas also were represented at the Iraqi expo.”
Eight of the Iraqi students who earned master’s degrees from Mizzou Engineering last spring came to visit Thompson and others from MU at the hotel.

“Iraqi students are very good technically. Those who earned their master’s degrees were all very good students at MU,” Thompson said, adding, “and we now have alumni in Iraq.”

Because professional engineers and engineering firms increasingly operate on a global scale, Thompson said internationalizing the college’s educational program gives MU students exposure to students from other countries and their cultures. They also have an opportunity to collaborate on projects in the classroom and socialize with them through involvement in student organizations and a peer mentoring program.

“We have a lot to offer our international students because we do things a little differently. We have a less prescriptive curriculum with open-ended projects that include problem- and team-based learning,” said Thompson.

While in Iraq, Thompson met with Bahaa Kazem, the director general for scholarships and cultural affairs with MOHESR. Kazem’s wife is a doctoral student in electrical engineering in the MU College of Engineering. Thompson and Kazem discussed research collaborations along with Fouad Kasim Mohammad, deputy minister at MOHESR.

Kifayah Abbood Al-Saffar, who was a visiting professor in the Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Department at MU, has facilitated many of the college’s contacts and collaborations with officials of higher education in Iraq. Al-Saffar, who has served as head of the Material Engineering Department at Al-Mustansiriya University since 1991, continues to play a role in the college’s Iraqi initiatives.

“We are very well-connected in Iraq,” Thompson said.

Opportunities for collaboration

“Iraq has now been included in NSF’s PEER [National Science Foundation Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research] Program,” Likholetov said. “Now Iraqi graduate students can write PEER proposals to work with U.S. researchers who are funded by NSF. These grants can provide up to $180 thousand for three years for post-graduate scholarships, collaborations and publications.”

The PEER science program is a partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and NSF. It provides special funding opportunities for researchers from designated countries to collaborate with NSF-funded American scientists across a broad array of scientific and engineering development challenges.

There also are opportunities to work collaboratively with faculty members and graduate students at Iraqi universities through a short-term training and enhancement program (STEP). Under this program, qualified, competitively selected participants will take part in short-term — up to six months — professional development, skill enhancement and innovative training programs at MU. Such programs can be customized to meet the specific needs of participating universities.

“We believe there are multiple emerging opportunities related to rebuilding the academic and research capacity of Iraqi higher education system and associated economic development opportunities,” said Likholetov. “MU is now visible and known in Iraq and uniquely well-positioned to take advantage of these opportunities.”

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