‘Start-Up Nation’ Scientists Cultivated at Early Ages by Israel’s Technoda
by Maxine Dovere
On the one hand, Givat Olga is an underprivileged neighborhood in the Israeli city of Hadera with about 12,000 people, primarily immigrants from Ethiopia, North Africa and the former Soviet Union. On the other, the neighborhood is home to the breeding ground for the next generation of science pioneers emerging from the “start-up nation.”
The decision to build Technoda – Israel’s National Museum of Science, Planning and Technology – in the unexpected location of Givat Olga brought educational resources to children who previously had limited access to them. Technoda got off the ground in 1986 with the support of the Rashi Foundation. One of Technoda’s founding fathers, Zion Bash, a senior engineer at Intel, helped develop an educational program with a focal point of enrichment in the sciences.
Twenty students took part in the first iteration of the Technoda program, which now provides more than 30,000 children per year with a hands-on science and general education. Students range from gan (pre-kindergarten) to high school.
“A small room has become a castle,” Dr. Gadi Mador, Technoda’s director, says in an interview with JNS.org.
“One of the basic elements for the future of Israel is to be, first and foremost, strong in science and technology,” he says. “Education is a journey that must start in kindergarten and continue throughout high school.”
Mador emphasizes that Technoda is the only place in Israel where all sectors of the population learn together under same roof – haredim and hilonim (religious and secular), Arabs and kibbutzniks, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Druze. The project’s goals, he says, are “first, to promote science and technology in Israel, and second, to bring together all elements of Israeli society on the common ground of science.”
A day at Technoda begins promptly at 8 a.m. Three morning programs are run simultaneously, with each geared to a specific age group. In the first section, the preschool class, even fairy tales become a vehicle for understanding science and technology.
“There is a special space for kids,” Mador says. “Technoda materials are integrated into the classroom topics. Material is provided to start the learning process in the school. Each gan program is two months long. Each of the five units per year culminates with a visit to [the] Technoda [museum].”
Technoda works with the Israeli Education Ministry to identify kids in the third grade who qualify to become part of its Gifted Program. The program continues through high school in an ongoing enrichment experience, both in science and general cultural education. Once a week, throughout the academic year, Technoda students study core scientific knowledge. As part of the high school curriculum, the young scientists visit high-tech companies.
“Seeing companies at work helps encourage work values,” Mador says.
The Technoda program goes beyond science. As part of their agenda, students have an opportunity to give back to the community. For example, they volunteer to work with children with disabilities.
“It’s not easy, but they enjoy working with these kids,” Mador says. “It’s an opportunity to help someone and give back.”
While the formal science and general education programs take place in the morning, afternoons at Technoda take on a more local flavor. The museum portion becomes a “home away from home to 400 children from Givat Olga,” Mador says.
Israeli children often grow up in the same towns as where their parents were raised, a situation that is true for many of the children in Givat Olga, according to Mador.
“We take them to another life, providing a hot meal, homework programs and an opportunity to participate in science and technology,” he says.
Technoda “cannot be just a museum – otherwise there is no support of children in Givat Olga,” Mador adds.
A results-oriented initiative, Technoda measures everything “from the point of view of both quantity and quality,” revealing what Mador calls “a real correlation between the rates of success [of Givat Olga children] and having this sort of opportunity.”
“There is a special group for potentially gifted children in the local community,” Mador says. “We recognize their potential.”
Mador came to Technoda in 1991 as a graduate student in physics and math. One of his professors asked him to come to Givat Olga to teach, and he has never left. His initial years with the project came during the first Palestinian intifada.
“It was quite amazing,” Mador recalls. “Outside, buses were blowing up. At the same time, in the classroom, Arab and Jewish students studied together in completely ordinary ways and learned together. Science and technology is the environment for the future: If you give children the opportunity to be together, it’s a great opportunity for them to simply live together.”
Among the first 20 students at Technoda was Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Capt. Yaron Vivante, a Givat Olga child whose parents immigrated to Israel from Libya. “He was born into technology,” says Mador. “He was very successful in high school. When he joined the IDF, he was accepted to pilot training, and graduated as a navigator of F15s (a type of fighter jet). Everyone was extremely proud of Yaron.”
In August 1995, four birds crashed into the F15 in which Capt. Vivante was flying. The jet crashed, and both he and the pilot were killed. To honor his memory, Technoda has named its major competition for young inventors in his name.
Among the innovations being developed at Technoda, in cooperation with the IDF, is a medical simulator, similar in concept to the computerized aviation trainers used by student pilots. The medical simulator effectively creates a hospital for children – without the children.
Mador explains that before a hands-on program like Technoda, Israeli children “did not understand the need to integrate scientific phenomena and applications.”
“Now kids build models – for example, of a car – [and] learn to understand how it accelerates,” he says. “Here, everything is hands-on, not just theoretical. Much is about the discovery that once you learn the basics, you can then reach for the high level.”