Professor shares lessons from visiting Saudi Arabia

by University Communications,

When Karen McFarlane Holman learned of an opportunity to teach chemistry in Saudi Arabia this summer, she was simultaneously intrigued and apprehensive.

She loved learning about new cultures and she relished the idea of instructing Saudi girls. But because of recent bombings throughout the country, she was concerned for her safety.

After talking with people who had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia, McFarlane Holman put her fears to rest and packed her bags for the 11-day journey. She was ready for a new adventure.

Promoting Science Education

McFarlane Holman was one of five female science professors from across the country who spent a week this June teaching teenage girls at the Research Science Institute in Dammam.

Run by the Center for Excellence in Education in Virginia, the summer camp aims to encourage young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Founded in the 1980s, the program is now offered in more than 30 countries and is open to students who score well on a talented and gifted exam.

McFarlane Holman heard about the summer camp from her peers, who shared how a chemist was needed in Saudi Arabia. Excited by what she considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, she expected to meet timid young women.

Instead, her pupils eagerly — and loudly — expressed their desire to learn.

“They were vivacious, fun and outgoing,” McFarlane Holman says. “When I asked a question, there was no hesitation. People would raise their hands and shout out the answers. They all wanted to be heard.”

Having never taught high school-aged students, McFarlane Holman didn’t know what to expect. She decided to set her standards high, and she wasn’t disappointed. Within minutes, she knew her students would succeed at a university like Willamette.

This assessment is in keeping with the goals of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Education.

According to the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C., women now account for nearly 52 percent of registered students at Saudi universities. Female scholarship students are also enrolled at universities in 57 countries, with most attending schools in the United States.

In terms of science education, McFarlane Holman says women may stay in Saudi Arabia to attend the College of Science at the University of Dammam. She was also told women may pursue many medical professions, including that of physician and medical researcher.

Researching Fuel Sources

McFarlane Holman’s lesson plan focused on exploring the pros and cons of coal, oil, biodiesels and other fuels — letting her students decide which sources were “best” and what “best” meant.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s reliance on the oil industry, McFarlane Holman says her students knew oil was a finite resource and were interested in exploring alternative options.

Ultimately, they decided hydrogen and biodiesel fuels were the most efficient and least harmful to the environment.

“I knew the results of their scientific investigations would override any political or economic bias toward or against any specific fuel,” McFarlane Holman says.

“They are eager to be a part of scientific innovations that will allow for humans to live on Earth without depleting its resources so harshly. They expressed this sentiment strongly.”

Cultural Differences

During her journey, McFarlane Holman encountered many firsts.

When she stepped out in public, she covered herself from head to toe in a traditional abaya, or robe-like dress. She heard a call to prayer broadcast from a nearby mosque several times a day — even at 3:30 in the morning. She was also segregated from men, as is common practice in Saudi Arabia.

“The segregation of genders was hard for me,” she says. “I talked to some of the girls about that, and they told me they grew up only speaking to brothers, cousins and uncles. That made me feel grateful for the male friendships I have.”

Now home in Salem, McFarlane Holman says her curiosity about the Middle East has blossomed.

“Before I went, I thought I was rather worldly,” she says. “This experience made me even more so, and I’m so grateful for that. Now, when I hear things about Saudi Arabia or the Middle East, I’ll have a much deeper interest and understanding in them.”