The Chronicle of Higher Education
November 4, 2011 - 12:00am

In 2001, to the distress of his family, Aref F. Husseini resigned from his jobs as a senior engineer with Intel and as an adjunct professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He bought a bag and filled it with some tools and electronic components—pliers, a soldering iron, transistors, and the breadboards used as bases for electrical circuits. He began to visit schools to teach science and engineering in a most practical way.

Those early efforts have grown into a nonprofit organization, Al Nayzak, that encourages the development of scientists, engineers, and inventors and tries to turn their ideas into products and businesses. Al Nayzak, “The Meteor,” provides supplementary education and mentoring to Palestinian youths, following them from fourth grade through their university years. None of the organization’s students have their bachelor’s degrees yet, but they have helped Al Nayzak to create 12 companies, with 154 employees. “In Palestine, that is a big victory,” Mr. Husseini said in an interview. “We don’t have security, we don’t have cheap labor, and we don’t have a very educated population, I am sorry to say.”

Mr. Husseini spoke here this week at the World Innovation Summit for Education, which seeks to highlight successful social entrepreneurs. He is also mentioned in a book, Innovation in Education: Lessons From Pioneers Around the World, that was released at the conference this week.

Although Al Nayzak is limited in size, it does not cater to the elite. Students from public schools can attend its programs at no cost; students from private schools have to pay a fee.

In part, the lack of elitism stems from Mr. Husseini’s own background. His father was a carpenter, his mother a tailor. Raised in East Jerusalem, he was bored with traditional education and came close to dropping out of school or being expelled any number of times. He has tried to make Al Nayzak’s curriculum appeal to students by connecting science to daily life with units such as “chemistry in the bathroom.” Teenagers are expected to research a problem, and then propose and work on solutions.

At the university level, 218 students in the program attend Palestinian or American institutions, including George Washington University, American University, and the University of Texas at Austin. Al Nayzak has the students sign contracts before receiving scholarships, requiring them to come back to their homeland.

One of the products that has come out of Al Nayzak’s efforts is a touch-screen device that Mr. Husseini says is close to the quality of conventional touch screens but can be manufactured at half the cost. The group also devotes time to agricultural machinery, including a potato-planting machine. In the effort to move forward to economic independence for the Palestinian territories, Mr. Husseini is mindful of the importance of agriculture. “Food is a challenge,” he said. “We can live without smart boards, but without vegetables life would be difficult.”

As Al Nayzak tries to build a culture of innovation, one element that is missing is Arab investors willing to take risks on inventions. Instead, Mr. Husseini said, they concentrate on traditional businesses, such as construction.

Mr. Husseini wants the organization to keep control of its own direction. “We are not submitting proposals to anyone,” he said. “We have many partners, but we are not donor-driven.” Al Nayzak generates about 35 percent of its own revenue, from sources such as the fees paid by the private-school students and the programs the group runs for international foundations. As a result, he said, no outsider can bring about the organization’s collapse: “Even if Unicef decides to go to Pakistan instead of Palestine, we will not close our doors.”

In 2015, Al Nayzak’s first students will have gone all the way through the program, from fourth grade to the last year of university. Fifty-five mentors now travel to schools with bags full of tools and electronic parts. This month Al Nayzak will hold its annual science-and-engineering fair in both the West Bank and Gaza, a political feat given the intricacies of Palestinian politics. The theme: “Made in Palestine.”

Could Al Nayzak’s model be copied somewhere else? Mr. Husseini opened his arms wide and lifted them: “I would love to see that.”


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