Israel’s hi-tech industry, including established and start-up companies, is woefully neglectful of its responsibility to give back a fair share of profits in charitable donations to the country. One company recently sold for $450 million, but its largest contribution for $450,000 comes from stock shares donated before the company went public. Many of these companies get their start with help from government programs, staff training like in the IDF’s 8200 unit, political connections, and the incubator environment Israel provides innovators and inventors. Science and math education can benefit more than ever from hi-tech’s participation.
I recently wrote about how proud Israelis are of our math and science students winning a slew of medals at Olympiad competitions this summer in capitals around the world. Achievements like these in the future are threatened, however, without more public funding, greater financial and personal interest from the business sector, and institutional encouragement to grow the culture of success attracting the best and the brightest into STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education.
Industrialized nations are scrambling to improve STEM education “facing a STEM crisis,” Vivian Packard, president of General Motors Foundation, said in September. “Lacking qualified individuals who are able to work in key fields, including engineering, technology and science, will hinder [the US] global competitive advantage well into the future.” Israel faces a shortage of 20,000 hi-tech qualified people to fill jobs in the next five years, according to one report. The shortage is traced to the dropping number of high school science and technology courses leaving the number of university graduates in these fields flat, and a growing number of vacancies in industries critical to the growth of the economy and military.
Two outstanding programs are worth mentioning, though. Israeli high school students recently captured 14 prizes in the 20th annual First Step to Nobel Prize in Physics international competition sponsored by The Warsaw Institute of Physics. The 2012 first-prizewinner is Israeli teenager Yuval Katzenelson from Kiryat Gat. His paper is on “Kinetic energy of inert gas in a regenerative system of activated carbon.” The Israeli entrants included six males and three females mentored by Professor Victor Malamud, Director of Physics at Ben Gurion University’s Ramon Youth Physics Center. Twelve prizes were won by students from the Ramon Center, and two by girls from Netanya Shapira School.
First Step is an open competition for young people up to 20 years of age. Entries are judged each on its own merits without extra consideration for a participant’s age, level, or ability. Oren Halevy from Beersheba, a student at an Amit school, won in 2011 for his DNA research. Rashi Foundation claimed in 2012 that “Israel was ranked first in the achievements of its students among all the (80) countries that took part in the competition.”
The annual Open Sukka for a Future Scientists and Innovators begun at the initiative of the Rashi Foundation and President Shimon Peres is a four-years program for 20 weeks a year of courses, workshops and science seminars during school vacations at Tel Aviv University, the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and the Technion, plus a summer placement in one of Israel’s tech companies for four weeks.
These are creative and talented young people “insufficiently challenged by the education system…” The students “are put on the fast track toward the IDF intelligence and technological Units — where their skills are greatly needed — or they become ‘academic cadets,’ pursuing an academic degree prior to their practical army service… [T]he move from academia to career is substantially facilitated. A special university coordinator provides students with any support they may need to complete their higher education. Funding for each student is US$ 4,000 per year.” Itay Bloch demonstrated making electricity from soap bubbles. Shoham Behar and Joseph Mouallem made sand hydrophobic, completely dry, powdery and averse to water.
Israel incubates innovation and inquisitiveness are engrossingly described in “Start-Up Nation,” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. The ingredients for growing a culture of success in STEM are money and public commitment: MORE MONEY for science and math education, serious and sustaining public recognition of the achievements of students, and a realization that STEM education is vital to our national interest. More money means better teachers, incentives for cross-institutional collaboration, and sophistication of learning environments. Everyone has a stake in advancing STEM education; the public-NGO-academic-parent-business chain must work hand-in-glove enhancing the culture.
Education got 5.8% more money in 2011 over 2010 in the Israel budget, on top of 5.6% more over 2009. The upward track is encouraging. Prescient parents are sending their children often at their own expense to extracurricular STEM programs and camps. NGOs like ORT offer science and technology education. Schools of higher education are training and mentoring budding science and math students. It is the business sector in Israel that is not doing enough, not carrying their fair share of the water either in money for education or lobbying government officials in one exoteric voice.
Israel lacks a culture of corporate giving existing in other industrialized countries. There is no mention in the Senor/Singer book of any giveback by the hi-tech sector to Israeli society. A tradition of corporate giving needs to be nurtured, and the barriers that stymie philanthropy must be overcome.
Organizations like Maala, Good Vision, and Tmura, are reaching into corporate boardrooms, teaching new entrepreneurs innovative ways to use their corporate and personal wealth and gravitas to make a difference in education. The time is now. Two suggestions: first, a national endowment can be established with contributions from hi-tech and other corporate sectors for education. A $100-million fund with a modest five-percent annual return will make $5 million a year available to better educate and encourage young people in STEM education; the target is to get this endowment to $1 billion in ten years. Second, the Jewish Funders Network and the Rashi Foundation must mobilize the Israeli business sector at an upcoming December conference, where science and technology education are the focus.
Hopefully the conference organizers will reach out to Israeli corporate executives and government officials inviting them to become part of the solution.