Back in January, PICO Kids roared with creative energy as several hundred kids packed the Makerspace to solve challenges related to the lowest point on Earth. At the Dead Sea Recovery Makeathon, kids built prototypes addressing the sinkholes, habitat destruction, and perilously low water levels decimating our beloved natural treasure. The excitement in the Makerspace turned to laser focus as the kids worked through the defining challenge of their generation: saving the environment.
That day in January with the Makerspace overflowing with kids now feels like a lifetime ago, before the term “social distancing” had entered our lexicon. Little did we know that just days prior Chinese state media had reported a preliminary investigation into a new type of coronavirus in the city of Wuhan. The weeks that followed have dramatically upended our lives and shifted our focus to a more imminent crisis of pandemic, one that may come to define our generations.
In Israel, we watched as travel from abroad became more restricted, the number of citizens in self-quarantine increased by the tens of thousands, tourists fled, flights were grounded, schools cancelled, synagogues closed, employees placed on leave, and gatherings limited from 5,000 to 2,000 to 100 to 10 to full lockdown. Our world rapidly closed in on us as the number of coronavirus cases continued to climb steadily. Parents across the country had to explain to their kids why they could no longer meet their friends, or hang out at familiar places like the Makerspace.
As the country and world adjusted to its new #StayHome status, PICO Kids went to work. It wasn’t enough to merely substitute the living learning laboratory of the Makerspace for a video conference room. Developing captivating educational content isn’t easy when it comes to the generation of Tik Tok and Twitch, but the PICO Kids team was determined to turn COVID-19 into a problem-solving opportunity. The staff team worked tirelessly, racing against tightening restrictions by the Ministry of Health, to develop programs that would not only help kids cope with their new coronavirus reality, but learn from it and contribute to it.
The PICO Kids team launched a set of activities designed to engage kids from home quarantine. They recorded and uploaded science experiments by “Rona Corona” that can be done at home with simple household objects, and kids responded by sending in videos from their own domicile laboratories. They launched PICO in Pajamas, a daily online gathering in which kids watch TED-Ed videos together and take part in a facilitated discussion. Additionally, PICO Kids regular classes continued online through the 180 science activity kits that were distributed to homes across Jerusalem.
And since it wouldn’t be PICO Kids without a big culminating event, the team also launched the PICOrona Makeathon aimed at finding creative solutions to the challenges associated with life in quarantine, from ways to combat social isolation among seniors to encouraging physical activity indoors. Over the past week, 250 kids and their parents have attending relevant lectures through Zoom. Kids are conducting independent research from home, and meeting with their teams and mentors through Google Hangouts to work through the design thinking process.
At the end of this week, 15 teams will gather online for the day-long Makeathon competition. Rather than build out physical prototypes, the kids are designing 3D digital prototypes using freely accessible modeling software. Rather than present their work in person, the teams are presenting via video conference to a set of judges from the high tech sector. Rather than displaying their prototypes at the Makerspace, the teams are uploading 1-minute videos on their projects. And rather than opening our Makerspace to the public, we’re inviting you to vote for your favorite project online (details below).
It comes as no surprise that these kids, members of the digitally native Generation Z, have adapted remarkably well to a crisis that demands we move our lives online. But more than that, they have proven that their technological prowess is essential to fighting back the threat of COVID-19. While adults may be driving the global response to this pandemic, Gen Z is equipped with the full set of tools to help us stay home and save lives. This is exactly what we can expect to see at the PICOrona Makeathon: a virtual revolution in the way we study, work, socialize, and convene led by our very own kids.
Despite all this, I’ll admit that I can hardly wait for the day that life returns to the normal that I know – to see my family in the US, to meet friends over Shabbat dinner, to give big gratitude-filled hugs to random healthcare workers, and to actually go into the office. Until then, I am trying to see the positive side of our global predicament, and feel gratitude for the tools that keep us connected in a socially distanced world.
Months from now when the world goes back to business as usual, I sincerely hope that we’ll remember the example set at PICO Kids – how these kids brought creative thinking and enthusiasm to help us take our lives online when it was needed most, and modeled connectivity and community in the face of calamity. Whatever the lasting impact of COVID-19, they will be the ones to usher us into the digital future.
Most of all though, I hope that we’ll remember how our kids contributed to stopping a scourge that disproportionally threatens the health and economic stability of generations of adults, and that we will apply the same sense of urgency and action to the crises that disproportionately threaten them. Once coronavirus is behind us, we should come together in celebration – make no mistake of it – but we should also remember that the Dead Sea continues to recede and the catastrophic impact of climate change is really just around the corner.
If the digital natives haven’t forgotten about what is happening at the lowest point on Earth, then neither should we.
Until then, you can show your support from home by visiting us at picokids.org to vote for the winners of the PICOrona Makeathon. Voting begins on Thursday April 2nd, and ends at midnight on April 6th.