Robots gliding through water. Robots crawling up sheer wall faces. Robots performing groundbreaking medical surgeries. These action movie-worthy scenes are just part of the daily grind for Professor Alon Wolf, the director of biorobotics and biomechanics at Israel’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, a world leader in technology research.
So what was the man, who last year rubbed shoulders with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama at an Israeli technology showcase, doing in front of an auditorium full of middle schoolers at Abrams Hebrew Academy on Jan. 10?
He came to herald the start of a virtual science program specially created by Technion education experts for students at the Jewish day school in Yardley.
Although this will be the Technion’s first foray into partnering with an American day school, Abrams has been connecting with Israeli professors for the past several 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 Rehovot, Israel. The school also uses webcams to conduct “virtual” field trips to historic sites in Israel, host guest speakers from all over the world and, most recently, join Israeli students for a Tu B’Shevat seder.
Abrams will pay $140,000 for three years of the science curriculum, which includes semester-long units on energy, chemistry and a third that has yet to be determined. Seventh and eighth graders will download pre-recorded video lectures, quizzes and homework assignments onto school-issued iPads. Teachers in the classroom will monitor the lessons, answer questions and lead accompanying lab experiments.
In addition to introducing the pilot program, Wolf’s lecture was also aimed at getting students excited about science. He had their undivided attention as he narrated a slideshow exhibiting the latest Israeli advances in biorobotics and then demonstrated a robotic snake developed by Technion experts that is used by Israel Defense Forces’ search and rescue units.
With a camera at its head, the snake crawls through tight spaces, such as a collapsed building, to give rescuers outside a better idea of what they’ll be facing.
The curriculum, which was officially launched this week, corresponds with the hiring this past summer of science teacher Amy Hamacher in a bid to both revamp and stabilize Abrams’ science department.
In recent years, Abrams has witnessed a revolving door of part-time science teachers to the extent that seventh and eighth grade honors science classes were being taught via video conferencing by teachers from Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and Kohelet Yeshiva High School. Students said they even began likening the science teacher position to the Professor of the Dark Arts in the Harry Potter novels. The Dark Arts post is rumored to be cursed since every teacher who takes it on is either fired, killed or runs away.
But Hamacher said she intends to buck the trend and stick around for quite some time to re-ignite students’ interest in science.
“Science as a whole has taken on a new energy at Abrams, and the Technion collaborative will serve as an exclamation point,” said Hamacher, who has been working closely with the Israeli institute to develop the program.
While students appeared riveted by Wolf’s lecture, their opinions varied about the new program. Seventh-grader Ben Doshna, 12, from Flemington, N.J., worried about not having an actual teacher leading the lessons, but did confess excitement at the prospect of having a different science regimen.
Fellow seventh-grader Rikki Feldelum, also 12, from Lower Merion, said that it might take some getting used to, but “it could be better.”
The adults in the school were more assured in their optimism about trying something new.
“I believe in my heart that this is one of the most significant things I have done at Abrams Hebrew Academy,” Abrams director Rabbi Ira Budow said as he introduced Wolf to the students.
Partnerships like this afford students the opportunity to gain a new perspective on Israel, said Budow, who leads an eighth-grade trip to Israel each year and has long advocated for a strong connection between his students and Israel.
“Israel is not only about guns and Torah, but a place of tremendous thinkers.”
Hamacher echoed his sentiments, saying that she hoped the program will “encourage students to become the next generation of scientists and engineers.”
Noting that the Technion often brings in foreign exchange students, Wolf challenged the Abrams students to study hard, reach high and maybe one day come work with him in Israel. He even invited the students to visit his lab when they go on their class trip to Israel in late March.
Based on the large group of students that rushed to shake his hand at the end of the lecture, he should not be surprised if they do come knocking on his door this spring.