posted on 01/10/2012: 540 views
Software that projects virtual keyboards on to students' desks and a shopping cart that follows its user around helped two UAE scientists beat 7,000 others to reach the final 16 of the Stars of Science reality show.
Dr Mohamed Watfa, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Wollongong Dubai, and Aisha Saleh, an Emirati final-year civil engineering student at the University of Sharjah, are competing for a first prize of Dh1.1 million.
They were among 20 contestants to reach the televised stages of the show, on the MBC4 channel.
Dr Watfa, 30, designed software for teachers in developing countries that allows them to give lessons by computer to a class of 20 using just one laptop and a projector.
Ms Saleh, 21, designed an electronic shopping cart that recognises and follows its owner using heat sensors.
Dr Watfa's software enables students to work from a keyboard projected on to their desks and backs their work up remotely on either their email account or a drop box.
"My idea is to give access to computer-based education for people in the world who can't afford it," said Lebanese-born Dr Watfa. "It will transform a wooden desk into a computer. You can have digital exams and you don't have to print anything. With a digital pen you can also take notes."
The design cuts down on cost, saves energy and enables a poorly resourced school to give a whole classroom access to hi-tech facilities. He hopes to pioneer the invention in the UAE's universities.
"There are the funds and means of support here," he said. "Dubai always wants to lead the way, so we'd be the first country to have such technology."
Dr Watfa said being on the show gave competitors exposure to international companies to market their products.
"It's been so exciting," he said. "When we got selected for the final 16 from the 20, I was a bit nervous. I'm in a competitive category with software and hardware so it's been a tough one."
One of the show's judges, Dr Yousef Al Assaf, the head of engineering at the American University of Sharjah, said Dr Watfa "wowed" the panel.
"He not only had the idea but he mastered it and could see the end of the tunnel while being only at the beginning," said Dr Al Assaf.
Ms Saleh said her electronic Follower Cart, which operates using heat sensors, would help the elderly or those with disabilities to shop.
"As an Emirati woman, I am proud to be one of the 16 candidates selected to represent my country," she said.
Dr Al Assaf said the judges were impressed by Ms Saleh's creativity.
"They loved the fact that we had an Emirati lady as it's not just good for Gulf women, but women all over the Arab world," he said. "It will show our female students that nothing can stop them. If they have the ideas and do the hard work, they can compete even internationally."
Dr Al Assaf said the show offered a platform for the region's talent and would help to inspire an interest in science in schools.
"It shows them there's another side of life," he said. "Even though compared with other countries such as Egypt there weren't many UAE entries, those there were very strong.
"Maybe it will help build the culture of innovation in the UAE."
The show is funded by the Qatar Foundation and involves competitors aged 18 to 30 competing for the top prize.
They are judged by jury members drawn from academia and innovative companies including NASA.
The winners of the nine-week show, broadcast on Thursday evenings, will be announced live on November 8. Half the votes will be cast by jury members and half by viewers. Until then, from next week viewers will see contestants eliminated on a weekly basis. – The National
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