Israel's Minister of Negev Development was once that poor kid from a nowhere town, so he knows what it's like to be overlooked and blocked from opportunities. Brian Blum of Israel21c explains that this is one reason why Silvan Shalom's Ministry is partnering with a Jewish education non-profit, World ORT, to run exciting, opportunity-rich science programs in five outlying and impoverished Israeli cities.
YOUniversity, which started in fall 2012, is running after school enrichment programs for 7th to 9th grade students in Nazareth, Dimona, Safed, Kiryat Gat and Nahariya. These five towns are among the "development towns" that were designated to take in streams of refugees from the 1950s on. Dimona is in the Negev Desert, while Kiryat Gat is just north of Gaza, built near the ruins of the Philistine city of Gath. Nahariya lies to the north, near the Lebanese border. Safed and Nazareth are both located in the northern area of Galilee, and were founded in antiquity. All of these sites, chosen to pilot the YOUniversity program, are disadvantaged economically and located away from the mainstream of Israeli population.
YOUniversity's director, Ido Horresh, explained the thinking behind the site selection.
"The Nobel laureate Arthur Kornberg once said ânot everyone can be a great scientist, but a great scientist can come from anywhere,'" quotes Horresh. "I am convinced that the most brilliant, freshest new minds in Israeli science are going to come from the periphery, from places like Dimona, Safed, Kiryat Gat, Nahariya and Nazareth."
True to ORT's mission to provide non-sectarian economic and social development, the programs are also designed to help Arab children in Israel, as well as the majority Jewish kids. In Nazareth, the programs have been located in an Arab neighborhood and must be taught in Arabic. This will create a challenge if they try to bring kids from all five towns together, but the program's point is to find promising kids in forgotten places, so it is is important not to exclude a large ethnic minority.
When a program is after school, it means kids have already had a full day of lessons and classes. If the point is to capture their attention and interest, and make them love the studies so much that they'll devote hours and years to them, there's only one way to do that. It has to be fun. Grades are out, projects are in.
For example, in the "Young Doctors" class, offered at all five YOUniversity campuses, students dissect pig hearts, take field trips to local hospitals and practice putting casts on each other. "Without actually breaking any arms, of course," Horresh adds quickly.
The popular "CSI" (Crime Scene Investigation) course teaches genetics by allowing its young participants to collect evidence, including fingerprints and DNA samples from hair fibers planted by the teacher beforehand.
The classes are charging nominal fees, but the fee structure is built to encourage, not discourage, participation. While one student's annual fee is the equivalent of about $100, the fees drop if a sibling joins, and if one family sends three kids to the program, there is no charge. The program directors aim, instead, for serious participation without absences. As many as 3000 kids are enrolled, with waiting lists in most towns. Students apply and are accepted by interview and recommendation.
A new, exciting program generally attracts a lot of innovative interest, and YOUniversity is no exception.
Horresh has used his academic connections to forge some powerful partnerships for teaching and supervision, including with his former employer, the Weizmann Institute, as well as the Technion, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. The latter developed the curriculum for YOUniversity's popular architecture course. Other cool courses include food design, oceanography, website building, applied physics and robotics.
There is a lot of investment being made in the program; although it's new, and funding is only solid for two years, they are planning for a 20-year engagement in each community. Local instructors are hired as much as possible, and each town had to provide facilities for the classes to meet and promise to remain committed for two decades. As the pilot programs go forward, YOUniversity hopes to expand into other needy development towns.