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Akiba Teachers Travel to Israel to Learn Some New Scientific Angles

January 4, 2007 By:
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Rhonda August and Joseph Dougherty at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel
At Akiba Hebrew Academy, science department head Rhonda August instituted a new lab project as part of the school's chemistry classes to take advantage of the recent Chanukah holiday -- mixing different substances with flames to study their properties.

"How can you relate Chanukah to the sciences?" posed August, who is in her 31st year at Akiba. "Work with chemistry using the different kinds of light and having a discussion [about] what light is."

August learned of the exercise -- and plenty of other new teaching techniques -- during a 10-day trip to the Davidson Institute of Science Education at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. She joined Akiba physics teacher Joseph Dougherty to participate in the first-ever Schwartz International Leading Science Teachers' Seminar, where nine North American science teachers shared ideas with 11 Israeli educators.

During the seminar, Dougherty learned something new about the properties of lasers; using several small beams rather than one large beam can better achieve a desired power rate.

"Our plan is to implement that [knowledge] when we get to the optics part of our curriculum," said Dougherty, who's in his 33rd year at Akiba.

Aside from learning from their colleagues, Dougherty and August gave a presentation about Akiba and offered their own opinions about day school education.

Much discussion at the seminar focused on the different ways Israelis and Americans teach science. At Akiba -- as at most American schools -- ninth graders take biology, tenth graders study chemistry and eleventh graders study physics. In Israel, the subjects are bundled together so students can learn facets of each science every year.

"We had a really good dialogue about science education, and what we all agree on is the importance of trying to keep our students more science related," said August.

The trip had special meaning for Dougherty who is not Jewish and had never been to Israel -- but who had a great interest after so much time at Akiba.

"It was a great opportunity, I wanted to go there for a long time," he said. August, who is Jewish, had previously visited Israel.

Since the trip took place from July 24 through August 1 -- during the heart of Israel's war with Hezbollah -- many of the North American teachers decided not to make the trip. For Dougherty and August, however, the decision was easy.

"I've been so anxious to make this trip, [cancelling] just wasn't something that crossed my mind," said Dougherty.

August got a chance to see Israeli resolve first-hand.

"Their strength of character is just amazing," said August. "Hearing about it or reading about it is not the same."

Since the trip concluded, August and Dougherty keep in touch with their Israeli and American counterparts through a private Web site so they can continue to share ideas or ask questions while they implement new programs in their schools.

"We have created an ongoing relationship among Jewish day schools that is only going to continue to grow and flourish," said August.

In her estimation, if you teach at a Jewish day school -- especially one like Akiba that frequently sends students for long stays in Israel -- it's important to visit the country yourself.

"I think it gives you an understanding of the country," she said, "makes it more than a news story and helps you relate better to the students."

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