Learning by doing: Apprenticeship Model at An-Najah
According to Barab & Hay, p. 72, 2001, apprenticeships include: "(1) the development of learning contexts that model proficiency, (2) providing coaching and scaffolding as students become immersed in authentic activities, (3) independent practice so that students gain an appreciation of the use of domain-related principles across multiple contexts"
Apprenticeship programs ideas emerged at An-Najah National University through an initiative by Dr. Abdel-Razzak Natsheh.
By: Shatha Jararaa
Dr. Abdel-Razzak Natsheh holds a BSc in Computer Engineering from An-Najah National University and a PhD in computer vision, medical imaging and artificial intelligence (AI) from Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K.
In the U.K, he worked with Trafford General Hospital on new automotive tools for radiologists to reduce cancer in science areas using CT skills; his major achievement there.
He worked closely with ENT specialists at the Hospital as a IT consultant and worked afterwards as a lecturer at Manchester teaching MA students computer vision and AI.
In 2011, he came back to Palestine and was appointed as a professor in Computer Information System Department at An-Najah. Since then he was involved in different activities related to learning, teaching and research. He started looking on how he can reduce the gap between the industry requirements and student graduates. Therefore, he started building initiatives and implementing new learning and teaching methodologies concentrating more on project-based learning.
"Students need to apply what they learn and promote their own projects", said Dr. Natsheh.
His initiative was welcomed by the Center of Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) team and he was appointed as an associate director there. He started working closely with Dr. Abdel Kareem Daraghmeh, CELT Director on building more initiatives on ICT. First he worked on a project with the Quality Improvement Fund (QIF) and World Bank where they did a pilot study. The main objective of the project was to link students with the industry. At the time, 30 graduate students were involved in the project and were directly employed in local companies. It was a success story, so they made it more sustainable and created the Computer Science Apprenticeship Program (CAP) that allows students to work closely with industry in four years' time.
This project focuses mainly on building students industrial competency skills by implementing projects. To achieve this, the center created a theme of university industry courses. Each course has usually more than three credit hours where students get three hour face to face meetings with the professors and then go and spend four hours a week in the company.
Through the program, students work closely on projects that are related to knowledge area courses and there are as well internship courses where they spend time four months or five months working on real projects with companies. By comparing the program students with other students; they show promising competencies related to life skills such as communication skills, presentation and data analysis.
Dr. Natsheh said: "To complement this, we're trying to build an innovative center which introduces our students to the entrepreneurship life cycle, from building ideas to how to validate them, take them to the market and build extra-curriculum technical skills. For example in CAP, we focus on AI and software engineering."
Dr. Natsheh proceeded: "The major focus is the entrepreneurship part because due to current economic situation in the country, we need to develop new ideas that can generate money. The project idea also popped out because we have an increasing unemployment rates especially among females. So we also aim to support women in entrepreneurship as we're developing a new program with MA'AN Development Center on building capacity to women between 15 and 33. The project allows women to carry out new SME's projects."
Are students projects implemented?
Students' projects are either done just for the sake of research or implemented in the company; for example, Isra Software and Computer Company used one of the students' projects to establish a new Point Of Sale system in restaurants. Also part of the university website team are students.
Work prospects and opportunities
Usually graduates work in software engineering, quality assurance or project management positions in IT companies. As for the AI students, they work in areas like data science, data analysis and AI smart component in ICT companies.
The new program offer students job opportunities along with real life training. The university dispatches students for training and brings people from the company to teach the students. Several students accommodate in company premises reach and development understanding through the MOU and the program. The program produces well-equipped competent graduates who have real connections with the companies.
Generally students work in local companies like ASAL Technologies and other outsourcing companies.
Does the program develop other skills?
The program is integrated as it offers students courses on communication, presentation, how can they promote themselves, technical writing and co-teaching besides the technical skills courses. Dr. Natsheh says: "You can see students working on a project without a professor and they know what to do. We're talking about first year students who are highly competitive. This semester we opened the program for 30 students but admitted 60! So we produce students who have it all."
Dr. Natsheh added: "We're the first university in the Middle East region that accommodates such a program. Usually when we talk about AI we talk about master level; here we introduce this to our BA undergraduate students. The project was designed in cooperation with Northwestern University in the U.S. The cooperation was over three phases. First I and my colleagues went there to study the framework and how the partnership is going. Second, we sent a group of students to Northwestern University innovative lab to validate their ideas. The third phase will include bringing teachers from there to teach at An-Najah, but the cooperation is not sustainable so far."
Northwestern University was part of the team who designed the curriculum and offered training for faculty members.
Expanding the program to other disciplines
The program scales up to other engineering fields. The Faculty of Agriculture expanded this experience for all its programs. The project team is working on expanding the program to include other disciplines like engineering disciplines.
Dr. Natsheh concluded: "When I first came to Palestine I thought about how I can transfer knowledge to our students. I wanted to change the stereotyped image of the relationship between the professor and the student. Therefore, I wanted to create a genuine friendly relationship that will develop trust and belonging to the university. I also aspired to create links between An-Najah and the industry. This initiative is a new step to innovation and entrepreneurship locally and internationally."