Desert clean up project: a lesson in strategic implementation

One week to go until the end of the semester and graduation! Yesterday we took our class field trip to the Al Ain desert - to clean a small patch of well used public desert, that also happens to be strewn with garbage of all descriptions!

I know more traditional professors and people education in the rote learning tradition will not understand how these projects have anything to do with learning... well, you do not teach critical thinking, problem solving and strategic implementation memorizing definitions.

Action learning is a movement gaining steam in academia - it involves not only hands on learning but applying theoretical concepts in real situations... Our desert cleaning project in Al Ain involved discussing the AD 2030 and UAE 2021 plans, but also the nitty gritty of strategic implementation. The vision of the UAE and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi is based on sustainability of the economy, environment, the society, and culture. The desert has everything to do with all four... But there is a serious litter problem. Of course not everywhere is this "bad" and the students looked hard to find a "bad" spot that was also easy to get to. The desert in the UAE is breathtakingly beautiful, just certain well-used spots need some TLC!

It started with a small group in charge of the project (Hamad, Khalaf and Surour - awesome job guys!). They were tasked in finding the best place, leading class discussions on what would be needed, how we would organize, getting permission from the municipality, transportation, etc. I was in charge of sending countless email :) The municipality was very supportive and actually offered to send workers to help us out... Hamad knew what I would say to that and respectfully declined the offer!

Enthusiasm grew for the project over the past 8 weeks or so... being able to motivate is a helpful skill among professors of Generation Y students!

On to the photo essay :)

We arrive at the chosen - pre-scoped out site in the Al Ain desert. 

Garbage was everywhere, and actually was worse than I thought it would be... the students said it was because it was so close to the road and some great sand dunes...
Each group needed gloves, heavy duty garbage bags and a "stick" - Ace Hardware knew by the third group to visit that they were Zayed university students :)

There were skills to be learned, bags to be opened and lots of garbage! And every time you dug a little in the sand there was more :) Seriously some of it was super gross, luckily by the time we hit really gross stuff we had been at it awhile and had built up our immunity!

There were some weird "treasures" found... and I just love this photo showing enthusiasm, and even joy in our desert clean up project :)

Skills became talents :) Yes, not all students were feeling 100%, but they came out anyways!
Close up of the camels grazing - thanks Salem for the pic :)


OK, it is not that strange to see camels in the desert - but we all took photos and were excited all the same... and of course it was a stark reminder of the real dangers of trash in the desert... the camels graze in the open desert and eat the plastic... but the plastic isn't digested and the lump can grow so big the camel will die a quite painful death.

The January 2014 men's graduating class in the College of Business at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi with the "fruits" of our labor... some of it had already been hauled down to the big green garbage container just a few feet away (yes those containers are every km or so... the municipality provides them, people just don't use them!)

Part of the beautiful clean "patch" of desert!

Relaxing after the clean-up :) We had a lovely early dinner around the fire...
This is part of the great beauty of the desert - relaxing and sharing stories around a fire... watching the sun set, having the professor give suggestions on how best to manage the fire, ignoring those suggestions... etc!
The Maghreb prayer - I asked permission to take a photo and then to post it - they said of course Miss, this is who we are and why we are.
The Maghreb or sunset prayer is one of the five prayers that Muslims pray daily. I have had the honor of seeing my students pray on many occasions, but I wanted to share this special moment with you. The owner of the camels had noticed us cleaning and then joined the students in their prayers. He then talked with them and said he would send over camel milk from the evening milking to thank and welcome us. A photo of the still warm and frothy camel milk is below.

After dinner he came himself and sat around the fire - and asked about our project and then spoke of the importance of teaching each generation - parents to children - about cleanliness, the ways of the desert, their heritage and Islam. He asked each student to introduce himself, and from their names he would sometimes tell a story about the father or grandfather and guess where they were from. He also spoke of how proud he was of them and how proud the university and their parents must be.

He then asked if the professor (me) wanted to hold a falcon. So we walked the few feet to his truck and there was one of the most beautiful falcons I had ever seen! It was a Shaheen and had a royal lineage... let me tell you there were some excited students to see his falcons and hear about his hunting adventures around the world.

Camel milk is destined to become a super food in the next decade... and it is delicious :)

Me in a very warm jacket made for cold desert nights and a majestic Shaheen falcon
Action learning will always have "unintended" teachable moments... this project had too many teachable moments for all of us to count! Bravo gentlemen, I am proud of you... when you start your jobs in organisation in Abu Dhabi, just remember this was a valuable team building exercise :)

Smile and courage, Dr. Connie


  1. This is a very inspiring article, thank you for posting these Connie, the students, yourself and your readers benefit from such articles. Thank you!

    1. Thank you Marco! Coming from a creative, inspirational artist and professor such as yourself is very heartwarming.

  2. Amazing article, seems like great learning adventure!

    Inspiring like always