The U.K. spent over $14 billion hosting this year’s Olympics producing the most entertaining, majestic extravaganzas for the opening and closing sessions.  Nation’s fielded exciting athletes with winning personalities that made the games fun to watch. The enthusiasm of the British teams performing beyond even their own expectations was infectious.  These weren’t the only Olympics games held this summer, however.  World championship games took place this summer in other countries that the media neglected to cover.  They were worthy of worldwide attention but given short shrift. The U.K. games tell about the brawn of nations.  The other games give us insight into their brains, education priorities, and cultures.

Washington, D. C. hosted the 44th International Chemistry Olympiad in July 2012. It is Israel’s seventh consecutive year fielding its best high school chemistry students competing against 71 other national teams. No Israeli athletes won medals at the U.K. games despite a budget of $5.6 million for training, travel, housing, and enormous personal effort and commitment from the athletes and their families.

The Israeli chemistry team brought home three bronze medals and one silver without much of a budget or fanfare.  The four students were finalists from a field of 3,000 applicants who trained with science teachers and volunteers including The Technion.  They tested on three-dozen chemistry concepts and skill sets; eight laboratory skills and procedures; and more than two-dozen factual concepts about chemistry.  The students tested in a five-hour laboratory practical, and a five-hour theoretical written exam. They deserve a parade.

The 53rd International Mathematical Olympiad was held in Argentina, at which the Israel student team (the youngest is 15 years old and the senior is 18 years old) won three silver, one bronze, and one special citation medals. There were two, five-hour sessions completing problems in algebra, geometry, analysis (real and complex), and combinatorics (whatever that is).  100 teams competed (team Canada has an Israeli living in Toronto on its team), and Israel placed thirty-first tied with Germany ahead of Switzerland and France. The Israel high school physics team won two silver and three bronze medals at the 43rd International Physics Olympiad held in Estonia this summer.  Israel now ranked thirteenth in the world last year, but dropped to 25th place this year despite the students’ stellar performance.

The investment by the Ministry of Education in training programs is responsible for some of the first class showings, but it is not enough. This year’s Olympiads are a crucible for a school system in turmoil.  Math and science education need a long-term infusion of money to attract students into the fields of study, taught by the best, well-paid teachers, in an environment that encourages inquiry, inquisitiveness, and research.  Students captivated by science and math need support, and low achievers need help focusing with good teachers able to draw out their interests.

Debate rages in Israel about the need to upgrade the core curriculum of schools. Some want to scuttle the system and start over.  Matriculation rates are haphazard and choppy. Professor Shay Gueron, of the University of Haifa, who heads the math team points out this year’s team has only five students, because a sixth out of 1,600 hopefuls from around the country cannot not be found who meets the academic qualifications and skills.

The intensity and breadth of study depends on parents demanding more from the schools.  Arab, minority, and ultra-Orthodox students are increasingly a larger percentage of the elementary and high school student bodies. They receive little if any STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math), because of community and cultural biases, and a succession of governments making little or no effort with these children.  The result in years down the road will see STEM quality deteriorating, grades suffering, fewer matriculations, and fewer international competition achievements. It is apodictic that the “start-up nation’s” ability to compete economically and militarily sans a flow of the well-trained young people into jobs and careers in math and science will be adversely affect weapons of defense, food and water science, bio-med, and other cutting edge technologies. The economy will sputter when Israelis cannot fill STEM jobs.

The cultural sea change that motivated America to heavily invest in public school STEM education after Russia launched Sputnik is a good example for Israel. Sputnik sparked fear in Americans that the Russian bear is able to blow-up New York. Instead she blew-up the American educational system. Internationally renowned American scientists were relentless in their articles and interviews calling for a new culture of science and math education. Congress rushed to pass the National Defense Education Act earmarking more than a billion new dollars in 1958 for science and math education. There was money to pay and train math and science teachers; special after school programs and summer camps in science and math education; science labs were built in elementary and high schools; money for grants and student loans flowed to science and math majors; the Federal government created many new science and technology agencies that kept up the momentum; and, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke before a joint session of Congress delivering a historic challenge for the advancement of science and math that lasted more than half a century when he said, “…I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind….”

After the 2012 Olympic games closed and athletes returned empty-handed to Israel, the Associated Press reported a spokesman for the Israel government outlining plans to spend $1.5 billion in the next ten years to upgrade athletic facilities.  Some op-ed writers blame government niggardliness for the poor showing in London. They condemn inadequate government financial support for athletes in training, the need to subsidize modern training equipment, housing, training camps, and the best coaching money can buy.  The dearth of organized sports programs in elementary and high schools leaves a black hole every aspiring star athlete must climb out of on his/her to shine in international competition.

The impressive medal winnings of Israeli students are a testament to student initiative, their teachers, and the private sector, but commitments of more money will be welcome.  Warning calls from senior math and science professors must be heeded.  STEM education in Israeli schools needs to be reinforced and reinvigorated, for our advantages to continue and the nation prosper. This year’s World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report dropped Israel’s ranking cautioning that Israel is challenged by the need for “a renewed focus on raising the bar in terms of the quality of education. If not addressed, poor educational quality—particularly in math and science (89th)—could undermine the country’s innovation-driven competitiveness strategy over the long term.”  Israeli Professor Daniel Shechtman warns, “Israel is still producing world-class scientists. But unless changes are made, the output will dwindle over the years.”  Professor Ehud Keinan believes STEM education is rapidly deteriorating in Israel, and the outstanding students thrive in spite of the schools, and because of special extracurricular programs enhanced by motivated parents. “Mathematics instruction in Israeli schools is at a low level and is getting worse,” Professor Gueron observed on Israel placing 53rd in the IMO.

We can start rebuilding the culture of science in our schools with more public attention to and acclaim for our young student stars competing in Olympiads around the world. We must also keep a close eye on the outcomes of a major event in December, 2012, at which staff and donors of philanthropies will gather under the auspices of The Rashi Foundation and Jewish Funders Network to “learn how philanthropy can kick start educational innovation, and drive government R & D to improve outcomes” in STEM education that will create the future generation of Israeli scientists and inventors. This might just well be the most important event of the decade for Israeli education. I hope they invite the student winners and teachers of this year’s Olympiads for advice and counsel. Let’s hope their conclusions are more challenging than phatic, and the Ministry of Education pays attention.