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Seeds of ‘start-up nation’ cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

By Jacob Kamaras/

Forget the dioramas. How about working on an Israeli Air Force drone?

That’s exactly the kind of beyond-their-years access enjoyed by students at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) industrial vocational high school run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the largest education network in the Jewish state. More than 300 students (250 on the high school level and 68 at a two-year vocational academy) get hands-on training in the disciplines of aviation mechanics, electricity and energy control, and unmanned air vehicles (drones), before moving on to the air force for their state-mandated military service and then most likely back to the aviation industry—often specifically at IAI, the company whose campus they used to call “high school.”

“I wish I had this kind of plan when I was 13,” said Gabi Daniels, a mentor for IAI high school students working on drones and head of mechanical proportion systems in the company’s production division.

The IAI high school was one of the destinations on a Dec. 1-3 mission to Israel by board members of Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the U.S.-based group of supporters of the Israeli education network, which operates 206 institutions serving more than 100,000 students.

Israel is now commonly known by the nickname “start-up nation” for its population’s knack for innovation and entrepreneurship, and the size and character of the Sci-Tech network seems to have contributed no small part to its country’s reputation. Do the math: 10 percent of all Israeli high school students attend a Sci-Tech school, and more than 60 percent of students across the network study in science and technology tracks. In these schools, it’s evident that the seeds of future Israeli high-tech start-ups are being cultivated.

“I believe it’s not just Israeli kids [who are innovative], but the atmosphere in which they are educated. … They are not afraid to fail,” said Eli Eisenberg, senior deputy director-general and chief administrator of research and development (R&D) and training for the Sci-Tech network.

Eisenberg would know, having also worked in the British and South African education systems, for Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela, respectively. In contrast with Israelis’ willingness to fail, he said that students in the United Kingdom and South Africa “didn’t talk unless they were sure about it.”

“In order to establish a start-up, you have to be willing to fail nine times out of 10,” Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg believes knowledge “is not enough,” but rather “skills are much more important.” With that principle in mind, school curricula are developed at the Sci-Tech network’s R&D hub, the Mushinsky Center, from which curricula are both implemented across Israel and exported to hundreds of schools worldwide. Sci-Tech network students learn real-world skills through practical subjects like financial education, time management, and teamwork.

Joel Rothschild, director of the Mushinsky Center, recalled how the Russian government approached the center about having more innovation infused in Russia’s school curricula. The Mushinsky Center proceeded to develop the “Kids’ Lab” program for grades 3-4 in Russia and “Young Engineer” for grades 8-9. Echoing Eisenberg, Rothschild said that when Sci-Tech trained Russian teachers, it spoke to them about how to “enjoy failing” and learn from it.

Curricula exported from the Mushinsky Center go well beyond basic math and science. Dr. Nira Shimon-Ayal works at the center on Nanopinion, a nanotechnology curriculum developed for European Union countries.

“It’s important for kids to know that these different sciences are touching a boundary that is fluid,” said Shimon-Ayal, citing the convergence of technology, science, society, and community. For instance, nanotechnology can explain food spoilage and the need for smart food packaging, she said. The nanotechnology curriculum, in turn, gives students a real-life scenario before going into how the science works.

“We really try to get them into science through a problem,” Shimon-Ayal said.

The Sci-Tech network also builds curricula based on the demand for professionals in various Israeli industries, and it currently has 18 industrial vocational schools like the one based at IAI. Irit Klipper-Avni, the aerospace company’s vice president of human resources, called the schooling model a “win-win-win” situation for the students, the company, and the country.

Among the IAI-based Sci-Tech high school’s 3,500 graduates to date, 1,100 have returned to work at IAI and 1,000 others proceeded to work elsewhere in the aviation industry.

“These students are going to be the future generation of our company,” said Yehuda Horev, the high school’s principal.

Kobi Nefkse, a 17-year-old student at the high school who works one day a week on the Gulfstream G280 private jet, said being inside IAI “gives us access to so many things other schools don’t have.”

“By the time I’m not even 20, I can have my degree in engineering,” he said.

But the road to a career wasn’t always so smooth for Nefkse. He recalled that at his previous school in Modi’in, he “wasn’t in an environment that was good for me.” Yet he found his stride with the practical and hands-on education at IAI.

“I’m a person that works with my hands. … As long as you’re doing something you like to do, you can’t really complain about it,” he said.

Daniels, the mentor for IAI students working on drones, explained how the Israeli Air Force benefits from the industrial vocational high school model.

“[The students] become much more ready for the army. If the army or air force wants to recruit ready-made technicians, this is the way to do it,” he said. In fact, about half of the practical engineers serving in the Israel Defense Forces are graduates of the Sci-Tech schools. Seven thousand of the network’s students take part in cadet programs, in which they spend two years training to become IDF technicians and engineers.

IAI isn’t the only company that teams up with the Sci-Tech schools—there are 80 such partnerships throughout the network. Sci-Tech’s gala dinner on Dec. 2 in Tel Aviv spotlighted collaborations with Teva Pharmaceuticals, Elbit Systems, SanDisk, and Biosense Webster.

While the industrial partnerships with Sci-Tech are abundant, they aren’t always quick to emerge. For example, at the network’s Ze’ev Boim High School in Kiryat Gat, a city that is home to an Intel plant, there is not yet a formal collaboration between the company and the school. But patience is key in these relationships, said Dr. Shai Lewinsohn, director of resource development and external affairs for the Sci-Tech network.

“It’s a long process,” Lewinsohn said. “CEOs have their own interests and are business-oriented. In order to build this bridge, you have to work with them. We [as a schools network] invest in it because we believe in it. We believe there is an interest on both sides to do this.”

CAP: Students of the industrial vocational high school based at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) stand next to a drone they are working on while their mentor, Gabi Daniels, addresses a visiting delegation from Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the U.S.-based group of supporters of the Israeli educational network to which the IAI high school belongs. Credit: Jacob Kamaras.

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