University of Minnesota Undergrads visit Middle East Universities and Laboratories

Marvin L. Marshak

In late May and early June 2010, the first University of Minnesota class ever allowed by the University to travel to the Middle East visited companies, universities, laboratories and other sites in Israel and Jordan. The class “Physics 4993: Science and Technology in the Middle East” was led by University of Minnesota Professor Marvin L. Marshak. The goals of the class, which included 14 science and engineering majors, were to increase students’ understanding of how science and technology may be able to address challenges faced by Israel and Jordan and how science and technology are pursued in those countries. In addition, the students learned about the culture and politics of Israel and Jordan and they were able to inform their pre-conceptions about these countries with first-hand observations. Because Israel is on the U.S. State Department Travel Warning list, the University required a special review of the itinerary and travel arrangements for the class. 

Physics 4993 began with a series of on-campus classes during the Spring 2010 Semester. These classes oriented students to the details of the scheduled visits in the Middle East and provided context for those visits. Students were assigned a specific site to research and they were asked to provide a short orientation talk on that site to the rest of the class. The University Study Abroad Office also provided an orientation session on travel safety and the University’s expectation for students studying abroad. Students were asked to read New York Times’ columnist Tom Friedman’s book From Beirut to Jerusalem, as a general orientation to the complexities of the Middle East. Since Mr. Friedman grew up in Minnesota, his perspectives are particularly relevant to University of Minnesota students, who are mostly from the Upper Midwest.

The Physics 4993 class arrived in Israel on May 21, minutes before the beginning at sunset of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The class spent its first days in Israel in Jerusalem, followed by Haifa and then Tel Aviv. The class then left Tel Aviv for the South, stopping in Be’er Sheva, a Bedouin camp near Arad and Eilat. The group then crossed the land border into Jordan, stopping in Aqaba, Petra, Amman, Allan, Jerash and Irbid. The class returned to the U.S. on June 4 via a non-stop flight from Amman to New York. The general arrangement of the itinerary was for the class to visit scientific and technical sites during the work week (Sunday through Thursday in Israel) and to tour historic and cultural sites on weekends and holidays.

In total, the Physics 4993 class visited sites and interacted with faculty and staff members from more than 40 different universities, companies and organizations. Specific sites and interactions included all seven research universities in Israel (Hebrew, Haifa, Technion, Tel Aviv, Weizmann, Bar Ilan and Ben Gurion), one Palestinian university (Al Quds) and three universities in Jordan (University of Jordan, University of Jordan—Aqaba and Jordan University of Science and Technology); global companies such as IBM and Intel; Israeli companies such as Via Maris Desalination, SuperDimension (biomedical devices), Hadasit (technology transfer) and Check Point Software; an Israeli Defense Forces drone base, the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority and the U.S. Agency for International Development in Amman. A special highlight for the class was a visit to the SESAME Laboratory in Allan, Jordan. SESAME is a synchrotron radiation facility, currently under construction by a consortium of Middle Eastern countries. The Physics 4993 students toured the completed building and observed the synchrotron construction activities.


The University of Minnesota Physics 4993 students were generally very enthusiastic about their experiences in the Middle East. Many of the students said they travelled to the Middle East with several pre-conceptions, most of which were wrong. Many of the students expected to see obvious signs of political conflict, to experience some anti-Americanism and to observe countries that were clearly technologically less advanced than the United States. What they found instead was mostly normal life, fantastic hospitality and science and technology that were, in some cases, more advanced than that found in the United States. A majority of the students reported that the Physics 4993 class significantly changed their perception of the world and that they now looked forward to more visits to diverse places.

Marvin L. Marshak is a Professor of Physics and Director of Undergraduate Research at the University of Minnesota.

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