Eleven students from the arid Middle East and North Africa convened in drought-stricken San Angelo, Texas, over the summer — to learn about water.
Through a grant from the State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, UK Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Alan Fryar and colleagues focused on capacity building in the Middle East and North Africa, with a particular emphasis on hydrology. In collaboration with researchers from the University of Georgia and Western Michigan University, Fryar participated in a program called BOOST: Building Opportunity Out of Science and Technology.
"The State Department put out a call for proposals in spring 2011," Fryar said. "The idea was to work with 18- to 30-year-olds in any of several Middle Eastern and North African countries to address some of the issues that were underlying the Arab Spring, such as the fact that youth unemployment rates were very high."
Fryar said, because there is a sense that university education is not necessarily an automatic ticket to employment in these regions, the grant represents an effort to help engage young people, particularly the age of university students, with skills-development useful for future employment in fulfilling societal needs.
Fryar's colleagues in Egypt and Morocco selected graduate students from those two countries with experience in hydrology and geology to participate in a field course. Five students from Morocco and six students from Egypt traveled to the U.S. in June.
Though they originally planned to conduct the training in the students' home countries, political instability in Egypt required that investigators select a more secure location, comparable in terms of aridity, like Texas. As a result, Fryar partnered with James Ward, an assistant professor of geology at Angelo State University and his former student at UK.
The effort represented both an educational and cultural undertaking, as the students were largely unfamiliar not only with the U.S., but also with their international counterparts.
"Countries across the Middle East and North Africa, in terms of science and technology, have not historically collaborated with each other to the extent that they might have," Fryar said. "Most of it is cultural, I think. Arabic dialects differ across the region, and because of colonial history, higher education in the sciences is in English in some countries, like Egypt, and in French in other countries, like Morocco."
The students flew into Atlanta, where Fryar met them with a bus and drove the rest of the way to San Angelo, stopping at culturally relevant sites such as Vicksburg, Miss., before beginning the hydrology training.
The training involved various tests and applied skills in the field, such as measuring water infiltration, stream flow, depths to water in wells and water chemistry. Fryar said that the students arrived with varying skill sets, though no set was complete. The goal was to transfer knowledge in a holistic manner.
"I learned more about techniques such as infiltration testing and chemical analysis," said Ahmed Nosair, of Egypt. "We made chemical analyses from samples of ground water we gathered from wells around San Angelo. We also learned some geophysical techniques."
After the field activities in Texas, Fryar and the students returned to Georgia, where the students participated in a week-long workshop on geographic information systems, remote sensing, and hydrologic modeling at the University of Georgia.
Fryar said he believed the training would help facilitate further water research in Middle Eastern and North African countries.
"The students certainly weren't starting from zero," Fryar said. "They're very bright. Their departments are to some extent under-resourced relative to what we have in the States, but access to the Internet opens a lot of doors."
Ward was pleased with the outcome as well.
"I think it is just awesome to help train them to where they can go back home and apply some of these skills and maybe get younger people in that region into geology and hydrology so that they can educate people about how important it is to conserve water," Ward said.