Forget Harvard—one of the world's best undergraduate colleges is in Iran.
In 2003, administrators at Stanford University's Electrical Engineering Department were startled when a group of foreign students aced the notoriously difficult Ph.D. entrance exam,the whiz kids weren't American wasn't odd; students from Asia and elsewhere excel in U.S. programs. The surprising thing, say Stanford administrators, is that the majority came from one country and one school: Sharif University of Science and Technology in Iran. [...]
Stanford has become a favorite destination of Sharif grads. Bruce A. Wooley, a former chair of the Electrical Engineering Department, has said that's because Sharif now has one of the best undergraduate electrical-engineering programs in the world. That's no small praise given its competition: MIT, Caltech and Stanford in the United States, Tsinghua in China and Cambridge in Britain.
Sharif's reputation highlights how while Iran makes headlines for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's incendiary remarks and its nuclear showdown with the United States, Iranian students are developing an international reputation as science superstars. Stanford's administrators aren't the only ones to notice. Universities across Canada and Australia, where visa restrictions are lower, report a big boom in the Iranian recruits; Canada has seen its total number of Iranian students grow 240 percent since 1985, while Australian press reports point to a fivefold increase over the past five years, to nearly 1,500.
Iranian students from Sharif and other top schools, such as the University of Tehran and the Isfahan University of Technology, have also become major players in the international Science Olympics, taking home trophies in physics, mathematics, chemistry and robotics. As a testament to this newfound success, the Iranian city of Isfahan recently hosted the International Physics Olympiad—an honor no other Middle Eastern country has enjoyed. That's because none of Iran's neighbors can match the quality of its scholars.
Never far behind, Western tech companies have also started snatching them up. Silicon Valley companies from Google to Yahoo now employ hundreds of Iranian grads, as do research institutes throughout the West. Olympiad winners are especially attractive; according to the Iranian press, up to 90 percent of them now leave the country for graduate school or work abroad.
So what explains Iran's record, and that of Sharif in particular? [...]
Part of the explanation, says Mohammad Mansouri, a Sharif grad ('97) who's now a professor in New York, lies in the tendency of Iranian parents to push their kids into medicine or engineering as opposed to other fields, like law.
Sharif also has an extremely rigorous selection process. Every year some 1.5 million Iranian high-school students take college-entrance exams. Of those, only about 10 percent make it to the prestigious state schools, with the top 1 percent generally choosing science and finding their way to top spots such as Sharif. "The selection process [gives] universities like Sharif the smartest, most motivated and hardworking students" in the country, Mansouri says.
Sharif also boasts an excellent faculty. The university was founded in 1965 by the shah, who wanted to build a topnotch science and technology institute. The school was set up under the guidance of MIT advisers, and many of the current faculty studied in the United States (during the shah's era, Iranians made up the largest group of foreign students at U.S. schools, according to the Institute of International Education).
Another secret of Sharif's success is Iran's high-school system, which places a premium on science and exposes students to subjects Americans don't encounter until college. This tradition of advanced studies extends into undergraduate programs, with Mansouri and others saying they were taught subjects in college that U.S. schools provide only to grad students.