With the help of videoconference technology, students at a Jewish day school in Yardley next fall will begin taking some of their science lessons from instructors all the way across the ocean at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
A shortage of science teachers, low scores on science testing and a dwindling number of American students entering fields like engineering have U.S. educators and policy makers searching for answers. At Abrams Hebrew Academy, leaders are hoping part of the solution will come from Israel.
As part of a collaborative program, students at the Jewish day school in Yardley will next fall start to use curriculum designed by Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, with classes taught cooperatively by an Abrams teacher and Technion instructors via videoconferencing. Abrams will pay Technion $140,000 for the three-year program.
The foray into distance lear-ning with an American day school is a first for Technion, while Abrams’ leaders had already started to look outside the school’s walls for learning opportunities over the past few years.
In 2011, Abrams became the first U.S. school to participate in Math by Mail, an online enrichment program developed by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Students in the program, which also now includes Politz Hebrew Academy and Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, investigate mathematical topics and communicate with others around the world via an online forum.
This year, teachers at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and Kohelet Yeshiva High School are using video conferencing to teach Abrams’ seventh and eighth grade honors science classes.
Abrams director Rabbi Ira Budow said his school started working with the other Jewish day schools after a survey conducted by a consulting firm found that parents wanted Abrams to strengthen its science education — as do many other American schools.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 15-year-olds in the United States placed in the bottom third in science literacy among 30 developed countries.
During the most recent presidential campaign, President Barack Obama said he wanted to recruit and train 100,000 science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers over the next decade.
“There is a tremendous void of really excellent science and math teachers,” Budow said.
This past spring, Budow led his school’s annual eighth-grade class trip to Israel. While in Haifa, the students toured the Technion campus and visited a robotics lab, where a professor showed the class the robots his students had developed. Budow said the machines acted eerily like humans, utilizing the same mannerisms and ways of speaking. He said the students were mesmerized.
Budow also met with Professor Orit Hazzan, head of the Technion’s Department of Education in Science and Technology, and their conversation led to the collaboration.
“When I visited Technion at the foot of the hills in Haifa and then I read these books like Start-up Nation about Technion and how they got involved with the high-tech world, I really felt like this is where we want to be,” Budow said.
Hazzan and other Technion faculty members were scheduled to tour Abrams on Jan. 17.
The long-distance learning program with Technion will replace the classes taught by Barrack and Kohelet instructors, but Budow said he hopes to work with those schools in other subjects.
He said Abrams needs to raise funding for the Technion program — oftentimes distance learning is done as a cost-savings measure — but that he sees it as a worthwhile investment.
“I will go to donors and say, ‘We have an opportunity to bring Technion to your school,’ ” Budow said. “Sometimes donors don’t like to hear that you’re building this building or that but that you’re building learning blocks in science and math.”