Exporting Knowledge: Israel Sci-Tech Curriculum Making Impact at U.S. Jewish Day Schools

Jewish day school educators in the U.S. receive training in the Israel Sci Tech curriculum that they are using in their classrooms; courtesy.

by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

April 15, 2012 – Hartsdale, NY – He’s 15, in ninth grade, and already thinking about a sci- tech career.

“The idea of being involved in science and technology is very appealing to me right now,” said Greg Robinov, a student at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, north of New York.

“Dealing hands-on with hypotheses and ideas that are truly applicable to how the real world works is something I really want to be part of.”

Robinov is one of 35 students at this Jewish day school enrolled in a science and technology program designed by Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network (ISTSN) and exported to the United States for the first time this academic year.

The program is based on curricula and teaching models that are the hallmarks of ISTSN, which is spearheading technology and science education at over 200 educational institutions in Israel.

Emphasizing hands-on experimentation and applying principles to real life situations and needs, the curriculum advances STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, and includes elements of each.

Israeli and American leaders alike identify STEM as key to advancing students’ educational and career development in a fast-changing world. And more broadly, they say, it is a 21st century necessity for economic growth and even national security.

Educators agree, citing the program as a significant enhancement to programming in their schools.

“The Israel Sci-Tech curriculum provides a substantive and alternative science course to encourage kids to pursue the STEM field and excel in it,” said Dr. Daniel Aviv, one of two teachers at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester heading the program there.

“In the United States, we often compartmentalize science, but the Israel Sci-Tech approach to STEM education makes it relevant and inspiring. We need professionals who are applied scientists, and this program is a powerful first step in encouraging students to consider this field in a real way.”

Solomon Schechter School of Westchester is one of seven Jewish day schools – all in the New York area – where the ISTSN-developed curriculum landed this term. It is a pilot project in the schools, in collaboration with ISTSN and the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE), which offers funding and ongoing support to educators.

In all, 150 students among participating schools are enrolled in the Sci-Tech program this year. Five new schools will be added in the fall, and 25 are expected to offer the program within five years, said Judy Lebovits, CIJE Vice President and Director.

Educators and CIJE officials said the ISTSN curriculum is especially strong, appealing and credible because it comes out of Israel, a hub of the high-tech industry and bastion of scientific advancements.

“If you look at the scientific and technological research and progress coming out of Israel, accomplishments far surpass most countries,” said Allen Sachs, Director of Research and Special Academic Programs at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck, NY. “They are clearly doing something right, preparing their own students for engineering and scientific careers. So why reinvent the wheel?”

Before the school year began, science teachers from the seven schools convened on Long Island for a multi-day immersion into the Sci-Tech curriculum, led by ISTSN educators from Israel. And in February, the American teachers traveled to Israel to continue training and to visit ISTSN schools.

The curriculum is geared at students in high school, precisely the years when many of them are giving initial, serious thought to college and careers.

“We’ve seen a void in science education in our schools, and Jewish day schools in particular,” said Megan Harris-Linton, who heads the science department at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in New York City, one of the pilot schools. “So the beginning of high school is a key time to get students motivated in the sciences.”

Rifkie Silverman, who teaches math and physics at The Frisch School in Paramus, NJ, and leads the Sci-Tech program for 18 students there, agreed.

“These students are developing a scientific literacy that they wouldn’t have ordinarily,” she said. “It is getting kids interested in science and engineering and what is possible. I fully expect that many of them will choose engineering and related fields as undergraduate and graduate paths.”

So popular has been the program, that a vetting process for available seats was necessary at some schools.

“We don’t select based just on scholastic achievement,” Aviv said. “But we are looking for students who like to tinker, who like to work extra, and who like to be independent thinkers. This is not for everyone.”

In fact, the Sci-Tech curriculum is non-traditional education in many ways. Front-of-the- classroom lecturing takes a back seat to near-immediate immersion through independent thinking, teamwork and project development across sci-tech disciplines.

“I want students to love science and find it relevant and interesting,” Harris-Linton said. “Kids actually like science when you meet them on their level and you find them where they are. In the engineering world, when are you ever given a paper test? It is all project- based trial and error and working with colleagues and trying to improve something or fill a need.”

It wasn’t long after the school year even began that the Solomon Schechter students were split into competitive teams to design, build and program small robots that could perform simple tasks, like drawing a line with a marker, or more complex ones, such as guiding a blind person.

“So many science and other classes are just very come-and-go, and you learn what is necessary for a test,” said Robinov, whose team built the robot that can draw. “This is just relevant in a hands-on way. Already, I’m beginning to look at things and use my instincts and curiosity and wonder how I can improve them.”

Using a successful Israeli model in an American Jewish day school has the potential to create personal and professional connections, both for educators and for students in both countries, some teachers noted.

Aviv said he envisions the day when American and Israeli students are connected through their computers or in person to work on joint projects.

“Israel is known for its tech start-ups and its advances in engineering and science, and we can export our knowledge and we are proud to say that we are good at this,” said Ran Soffer, who heads science and technology studies for the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network. “Our basic point is to give young, talented students the option to view this field as a career option.”

In April, a delegation of Israeli educators and principals from Israel Sci-Tech Schools visited the Solomon Schechter campus in Westchester to see the curriculum in action.

Avigaiel Greenberg, who heads Afek Sci-Tech Junior High School in Kiryat Bialik, near Haifa, saw similarities in how the ISTSN curriculum can transform students and their futures, both in the U.S. and in Israel.

“This is revolutionary here. These students are telling us how the Sci-Tech program is changing their goals, how they were never familiar with the power and potential of science and engineering, and now suddenly they want to be engineers. This course will change their future. This is what we see in our schools and to see it here too is impressive.”