By Liel Leibovitz
“For 200 years, we taught math, history, and science—but now that’s all over” said Dr. Eli Eisenberg, the director general for research, development, and training at Israel Sci-Tech Schools, largest educational network in Israel. “We need to open up life for kids, otherwise we won’t be relevant.”
As anyone who has attempted teaching technology to young adults knows – I myself had had the pleasure for several years at New York University – the challenges at hand transcend the relative complexities of the subject matters themselves. With a cornucopia of apps and gadgets always at their fingertips, students today are a bit like the proverbial fish who know nothing about water. To make them immerse themselves in scientific inquiry, you need a pretty big catalyst.
And they don’t come much bigger than the Singularity, the idea, roughly speaking, that artificial intelligence will soon become so advanced that we would be able to download our consciousness into a hard drive and continue to live as happy and immortal cyborgs connected to one eternal network. Using the concept – which is unfamiliar to most save for the nerdiest among us – as a conversation-starter, Israel Sci-Tech created a non-orthodox and fully immersive course of studies designed to make tech palpable and approachable.
Focused on fostering the type of self-motivated attitude crucial for survival in the start-up economy, the program – running for several weeks in the ninth and tenth grades and currently available in a handful of Israeli schools – combines traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) with art classes and an emphasis on innovation and creative thinking. With the big idea of the Singularity in mind, students suspend their ordinary studies for a few weeks, spending their days instead listening to lectures from senior researchers and innovators, visiting universities and labs, and then working in groups to solve a problem they’d like to see addressed in their community or school. This can include anything from a better way to purify water to rigging wheelchairs that could climb stairs. And opening up life for students, Eisenberg added, necessitated not only teaching them the skills available today but also encouraging them to think about the opportunities likely to arise in the near future, with a major leap in artificial intelligence just on the horizon.
“The problem with so many students today is motivation,” Eisenberg explained. “Many times, what they learn in school seems irrelevant to what they see around them in the world. They have no patience to wait until they’re older. Our challenge is to allow them to unlock their own creativity, to plan their own work, and to want to learn more math and physics not because a teacher told them but because they see it’s relevant to their life and their future.”
Avi Hasson, Israel’s chief scientist, agrees. Visiting Australia this week. Hasson told local high tech entrepreneurs that the new generation of students needed a new educational approach. “There are different ethos and different self-fulfillment strategies that they like to take,” he said, adding that the key to successful STEM education, therefore, was not just to teach science for its own sake but to encourage young students to think of future applications for the skills they’re learning.
In true Start-Up Nation fashion, Israel Sci-Tech’s new program was developed with the Israel Defense Forces’ Unit 8200 – the elite intelligence division that is responsible for recruiting and training so many of the superstars of Israeli high-tech – and enjoys the collaboration of Daniel Shechtman, the Technion professor and Nobel Laureate.