A head for numbers

By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
June 1, 2006 10:53

Meet Miriam Amit, the wind beneath the wings of the Kidumatica whiz kids.




numbers 88

numbers 88. (photo credit: )

Everyone loves a come-from-behind story, where a little guy comes out of nowhere and pulls off an upset victory. An upset victory recently took place in the world of mathematics: Kidumatica, a math club from the south of Israel, stunned the scholastic world by winning the national mathematics championships. And Kidumatica didn't just win - it triumphed, taking home 62 of the 146 prizes awarded. Best of all, the Kidumatica kids are classic underdogs - new immigrants, children from development towns and a sizable number of Beduin. Not everyone was surprised. Kidumatica's creator, Miriam Amit, had every confidence in the 400 schoolchildren who study math in her program two afternoons a week. Low expectations do not bother her - she's a come-from-behind person herself. Amit now holds a master's and a PhD, is active on several international committees, and spent several years as the head of the Education Ministry's mathematics department. Amit began life in a German refugee camp and grew up in a ma'abara (immigrants' transit camp). As a child, she never met anyone who'd been to college. Kidumatica came into being eight years ago when Amit, now director of the graduate program and Center for Science and Technology Education at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), wanted to implement "my own kind of Zionism. I wanted to help the underprivileged, but not just the poor. Children whose talents are not given a chance to develop are also underprivileged. What I saw in the south was that students didn't have the same opportunities as children in other parts of Israel had. I wanted to offer them the benefits I had." The benefits Amit grew up with didn't include wealth or privilege. "My parents were from Ulm, Einstein's birthplace," she says. "They were refugees when I was born in 1948, having spent the war hiding in forests. They were the only members of their families to survive. We were very poor - we really had nothing at all in terms of possessions. But my childhood was wonderful. I was completely happy. My parents created a home that was full of love, inspiration and joy. They were Zionists, so no one minded that we lived in a tent." It quickly became apparent that Amit was very bright. "I excelled in math and physics. My mother believed that you needed three things to survive: a profession, independence and the ability to give to others. We had almost nothing ourselves, but my mother always gave food to anyone who asked. I worked and studied very hard. My goal was to have a profession, be independent and be able to give to others." Amit graduated from high school and then enrolled at the Technion, where she met and married her first boyfriend, Dan, now her husband of almost 40 years. "After graduation we went to Eilat. Dan worked with the Timna Copper Mines and I taught math. I wanted to do more to help my students, so I started a mathematics class for parents. I thought if they understood it better, they could help their children. The program was very popular, but then the copper mines closed and we had to leave Eilat. By that time, I knew I wanted more education, so we moved to Omer and I enrolled at BGU." As successful as she was, Amit never forgot her mother's admonition. "In Yiddish, she'd say, 'You started in the basement and went up to the penthouse. Now you need to go down the elevator and help those who are still in the basement.'" By 1995, she was teaching part time at BGU and began making plans to do something extra for local school students, just as she had in Eilat. Kidumatica - Hebrew for "to promote math" - was created in 1998 with an egalitarian agenda. "I wanted to help the poor, but not just the economically poor," says Amit. "I wanted to reach out to talented students who were on the upper levels intellectually but weren't being challenged in school, to help them make the most of their potential. Israel's wealth lies in the power of our minds - it's a resource we cannot afford to waste. If we don't work to challenge the best young minds in the south, they'll go elsewhere. At Kidumatica we never exclude anyone on the basis of economic status. Rich or poor, if they pass our entrance test we welcome them." There was no shortage of detractors at first. "People told me, 'You'll never find enough students to qualify - there just aren't enough bright kids here.' We went ahead anyway. One of our biggest benefactors was the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, which financed our first year. We advertised and expected to end up with about 60 students. When several hundred applied, we were surprised but knew our entrance exam was tough. When the tests were in, we realized that more than 200 students had qualified. We were stunned. What could we do? We didn't have funding for that many! So I approached the foundation's director, Eli Alaluf, who said 'Take them all. We'll pay.'" That was half the battle. "We accepted 200 kids, but then the nay-sayers were at it again: 'You'll never find enough teachers.' So I started in Beersheba, with the Russian community. Russians have a culture of high achievement and a strong tradition in math. We found wonderful teachers, people who not only loved math but loved kids as well," she says. Over the next eight years, Kidumatica grew exponentially. It now includes 400 students from the ages of 10 to 17, who work in small groups overseen by 14 teachers. "The students come from every ethnic group and economic segment in the South," Amit says. "Only 19 pay the full cost, while the rest are subsidized. Many are new immigrants or from the disadvantaged Daled neighborhood in Beersheba, others from Kiryat Gat and the development towns. We have 57 Beduin. Girls make up about 30% - 40%. We're working toward a 50-50 ratio and also trying to inspire more Ethiopians to take the test. So far, we have only one Ethiopian, so we're looking for ways to develop more interest." Providing transportation is key to the program's success. "It's important that students be bused to the university. Without buses, too many wouldn't be able to attend. Former BGU president Avishay Braverman was one of our most dedicated supporters, so we have the use of the university facilities. Bringing them here fills a sociological purpose, too. It inspires them, blends them and puts them in a social situation where they mingle with people from many different cultures." Attracting Beduin students required special planning. "I began by talking with the fathers, since they're the ones who communicate." Amit says. "When I explained the program to them, they were eager to get their children in - and they've been very supportive. One day, one of our buses rolled in and then a car drove up. One of the Beduin girls had missed the bus, so she'd run all the way to her grandfather's and he dropped what he was doing to drive her in. 'She can't afford to miss even one class,' he told me," recounts Amit. What's the essence of Kidumatica? "We're research-based. The components are logical thinking, problem solving, creativity, innovation and non-routine processes. We created new math courses, games and problems that are fun to do. We inspire both competition and cooperation, and build social skills as well. We take occasional field trips and have guest lecturers on all sorts of subjects, not just math. Most of our kids are not math prodigies. They have a lot of interests. Our goal is to stimulate their thinking in all the areas that interest them. Math builds strength and confidence. It teaches a way of thinking, a way to understand the world. Mathematics organizes the mind." "Talent is not enough," Amit says. "You can inherit talent. It's what you do with talent that counts. You have to make it grow. So my mother was right: You need a profession, you need the confidence to be independent, and you need to help others. That's what Kidumatica is all about."


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