Helping Students Build Critical Thinking Skills in Oman Through the Fulbright Specialist Program

Dave Paquin (center) and colleagues at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman.

By Stephanie Genkin

Dave Paquin has taught hundreds of online and critical thinking courses at universities and educational institutions in the United States. So, when Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), Oman’s only public university, requested a Fulbright Specialist to train its faculty, he jumped at the opportunity to gain valuable professional experience abroad.

It was a perfect fit. Over the last 20 years, Paquin has honed his expertise in critical thinking development, online learning, and workforce training, first as a technician and instructor for the U.S. Navy and then as a college professor and administrator, before serving as the CEO of Delta Business Training.

SQU’s request for a Fulbright Specialist was spurred by the results of a university-wide survey indicating that incoming students had lower than average critical thinking skills compared to university students in other countries around the world.

Oman, located on the southeastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, has few natural resources and is struggling to diversify its economy beyond oil exports. With fluctuations in worldwide oil prices, efforts to ensure sustainable employment for Oman’s young population have gained steam. Developing a professional workforce with critical thinking skills is essential to that effort.

As a Fulbright Specialist, Paquin worked with staff at SQU’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) to develop and implement an online training course in teaching critical thinking for faculty members across various disciplines such as engineering, medicine, and business.

The course aimed to help faculty members improve the way they deliver content in class and evaluate students. By replacing rote learning with problem solving skills, instructors can help promote independent thinking and better prepare young Omanis for the highly competitive international job market.

So far, 120 faculty have enrolled in the course.

Dr. Hameed Sulaiman, an associate professor of environmental science, was one of over 20 faculty members who completed Paquin’s course in May 2019.

He says the impact of the course was “huge.”

Sulaiman, who received SQU’S distinguished academic award for teaching last year explains: “It helped create an identity for myself as a teacher within a short period of introducing the critical thinking tools in a few of my classes.”

He learned strategies for teaching critical thinking for specific course content and has incorporated techniques from Paquin’s course like ‘one-minute papers’ and reflective writing exercises into his teaching.

“The results are great,” he adds. “I received very good student feedback that is motivating for me.”

The university’s aim is to incorporate instruction supporting critical thinking, moving away from lectures as the sole teaching method.

“Traditionally, young people are not encouraged to ask questions,” Paquin says. As a result, students often have little to no experience collaborating on group projects, participating in debates, or going on field trips. “It’s basically just lectures,” he adds.

Paquin says lectures are one of the poorest ways to teach people.

“The time with a professor could be used much more effectively,” he says. “Students might as well be at home listening to [lectures].”

Three people sit around a conference table.

However, he observed a number of classes and has been encouraged that faculty members are open to incorporating change.

At the time of Paquin’s visit, SQU did not offer any online learning opportunities and no one at the university had online course development experience, so Paquin also consulted with CETL design teams to refine the university’s process and criteria for online course design. While in Oman, he met with over 20 instructors to advise them on putting their classes online.

Blessy Prabha Valsaraj, anassistant professor of Mental Health Nursing at SQU’s College of Nursing, participated in the critical thinking training and was one of the instructors who worked with Paquin to learn how to take her courses online.

Of the experience, she says Paquin was “very supportive throughout the course and gave critical feedback on our work.”

Valsaraj says that the novelty and feasibility of distance education made working with Paquin appealing. As it happened, the timing of his guidance couldn’t have been better. Just a month after Paquin’s final visit, the COVID-19 pandemic would pause in-person learning, and the demand for virtual classes skyrocketed overnight.

For Paquin, being a Fulbrighter has expanded his own professional networks and outlook. He was able to offer a hands-on critical thinking workshop at an international education conference in Oman, which he says was a great opportunity to network with innovative thinkers in education from across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.

Serving as a Fulbright Specialist also gave him a unique opportunity to experience life in a predominantly Muslim society for the first time and to learn about Omani culture.

“The only unfortunate thing about the Fulbright Specialist experience is that it came to an end,” says Paquin.

However, his relationship with SQU faculty continues: based on the positive results of his trainings, the university is exploring other funding sources for further collaboration.

“The Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs want Dave to design four additional online modules to create a totally online Certificate of Higher Education Teaching and Learning,” says Otherine Neisler, CETL’s former deputy director.

Discussions are underway to develop additional courses in 2021 and 2022 to complete the certificate program, and there is interest in eventually expanding the program to all higher education faculty in Oman.

For Paquin, being a Fulbrighter has opened many doors.

“I developed a good international network,” he says, adding that he’ll bring back to the U.S. what he learned.

“It has been an amazing and eye-opening experience to learn firsthand the challenges faced by faculty worldwide and how their cultures both enhance and challenge their academic work.”

Communities Connecting Heritage

Communities Connecting HeritageSM  Program Impact


CCH Alumni Small Grants

At the conclusion of the program’s third year, the CCH team opened the Communities Connecting Heritage Small Grants to organizational and community member alumni from all three CCH cycles. The following projects were selected for CCH Small Grant implementation.

Kristina Llane (Albania)
Title of Project: Beekeeping Tradition as and Educative Tool

This project aims to preserve and share the importance of local beekeeping traditions in the Gjirokastra community of Albania. Kristina will work with elementary school students to cultivate youth interest in beekeeping’s cultural role in their community. Throughout the project, students and teachers will contribute to an educational book on beekeeping to that will equip teachers to continue sharing with future classrooms. The project will conclude with a panel discussion focused on protecting and preserving culture, tradition, and the environment in Albania.

Kalpana Gagdekar (India)
Title of Project: Connecting Community with Their Traditional/Heritage Cuisine

This project will explore and document the Chhara community’s traditional cuisines, which are experiencing a disappearing effect under modern global influences. Kalpana aims to document the rituals and heritage of Chhara cuisine through seven video interviews with Chhara women elders. The project combines modern technology with traditional food heritage and welcomes Chhara members of all ages to reclaim and rediscover their own heritage.

Mandala Theatre (Nepal) and Creative Connections (Connecticut, U.S.)
Title of Project: Hamro Sanskriti: Preserving Cultural Heritage through Participatory Theatre

The goal of this project is to provide youth in Connecticut and Nepal with a deeper connection to their own culture through student-led virtual workshops. The workshops – spearheaded by theater trainers in Nepal and Connecticut – will teach participatory theater techniques to 250 high school students and conclude with a model forum theater piece produced by students for the public.

Athar Lina (Egypt)
Title of Project: Rawya: The Water Women

Rawya: The Water Women is a Cairo-based project aimed at restoring the historically significant Sabil Um Abbas, a 19th century religious building and gathering place, into a usable community space once more. In addition to restoring aspects of the building, the project will connect U.S. and Egyptian women storytellers Donna Bryson and Chirine El Ansary to curate a storytelling experience of powerful 19th century women from their respective countries. Their work will culminate in a video exhibition that will be on display in the newly renovated Sabil Um Abbas for the local community to experience.

Bhasha Research and Publication Centre (India) and University of Northern Colorado (Colorado, U.S.)
Title of Project: Reclaiming Heritage II: Building Social Bonds and Bridges with Cultural Heritage

This project will utilize digital library resources at UNC to create and share cultural heritage “snapshots” with the broader community. These short videos will help immigrants and refugees in Colorado and indigenous peoples in India share their cultural heritage while building bonds with their local communities. The project will provide its participants with the ownership and platform to share their own heritage while paving a pathway for integration with others in their community.

Outside the Lens (California, U.S.)
Title of Project: Youth Tellers

Youth Tellers is a cross-cultural collaboration between Latinx youth in California and Bosnia-Herzegovina, relying on the concepts of past, present, and future to explore students’ complex cultural identities. Using digital media tools including photography, videography, and youth-facing communication forums like Discord, the project will culminate in a virtual exhibition showcasing the participants’ cultural heritage exchange with one another.

Explore the Story section on the right to learn more about the unique cultural heritage projects implemented since 2018.

Digital Communication Network

Examples of Past Digital Communication Network Projects

  • Internet vs. Democracy Forum
  • Roaring 20s #Digital Forum
  • Combatting Disinformation Training Program
  • Digital and Media Literacy for NGOs Training Program
  • Tolerance and Coexistence 2.0 Forum
  • Montenegro Digital Influencers Hub
  • Humor and Games for Social Good Forum

Fulbright Specialist Program


Link U.S. Experts and International Institutions

A program of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Specialist Program is a unique opportunity for U.S. academics and established professionals to engage in two- to six-week consultancies at host institutions across the globe. Host institutions, including universities, non-profits, and other organizations, develop and submit projects for approval by the U.S. Embassy or Fulbright Commission in their country in wide-ranging academic and professional fields that build capacity and promote long-lasting linkages between individuals and institutions in the U.S. and abroad.


Address Priorities and Build Institutional Capacity at Institutions Around the World

An important companion to the traditional Fulbright Scholar Program, the Fulbright Specialist Program differs by providing short-term exchange experiences that tackle discrete, sometimes rapid response, projects. The Fulbright Specialist Program encourages participation of both university faculty and highly experienced non-academics, including legal experts, business professionals, public health practitioners, scientists, IT professionals, artists, and journalists. The program is a mutually beneficial opportunity for the Specialist who may not be available to leave their position for an extended period of time and the host institution which needs an experienced partner to jointly tackle a problem or examine an issue on a short-term basis.


Become a Fulbright Specialist: Apply to Join the Roster

Fulbright Specialists are a diverse group of highly experienced, well-established faculty members and professionals who represent a wide variety of academic disciplines and professions.  In order to be eligible to serve as a Fulbright Specialist, candidates must have significant experience in their respective professional field and be a U.S. citizen at time of application. Eligible disciplines and professional fields supported by the Fulbright Specialist Program are listed below.

  • Agriculture
  • American Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Archeology
  • Biology Education
  • Business Administration
  • Chemistry Education
  • Communications and Journalism
  • Computer Science and Information Technology
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Engineering Education
  • Environmental Science
  • Law
  • Library Science
  • Math Education
  • Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies
  • Physics Education
  • Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Public/Global Health
  • Social Work
  • Sociology
  • Urban Planning

Interested candidates can find more information about the Fulbright Specialist Program and apply to serve as a Specialist at Candidates who meet all eligibility requirements will have their full applications reviewed by a panel of their professional peers. Candidates who are approved by the peer review panels will then join the Fulbright Specialist Roster. Individuals remain on the Specialist Roster for a three-year term and are eligible to be matched with a host institution’s project abroad during that tenure.

The following costs are covered for those Fulbright Specialists who are matched to a project: international and domestic airfare, ground transportation, visa fees, lodging, meals, and incidentals. A daily honorarium is also provided.

Become a Host: Bring a Fulbright Specialist to Your Institution

The Fulbright Specialist Program allows universities, cultural centers, non-governmental organizations, and other institutions abroad to host a leading U.S. academic or professional to work on diverse, short-term collaborative projects where the Specialist conducts activities which may include, but are not limited to:

  • Delivering a seminar or workshop
  • Consulting on faculty or workforce development
  • Developing academic or training curricula and materials
  • Lecturing at the graduate or undergraduate level
  • Conducting needs assessments or evaluations for a program or institution

Institutions interested in hosting a Fulbright Specialist should contact their local Fulbright Commission or U.S. Embassy for country-specific requirements and deadlines.

Contact information for all participating countries is available on the website.

For more information or questions about the Fulbright Specialist Program, please email [email protected].

The Fulbright Specialist Program is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. government and administered by World Learning.