A group of religious school girls in the Negev is using science and robotics to bridge cultural and social gaps with their Beduin neighbors.
The 8th- and 9th-graders at the AMIT Kamah Yeroham High School for Girls began studying robotics two years ago.
“In the middle of the day there is an hour and fifteen minutes where the girls can choose an elective in the arts and sciences. These girls chose to study robotics and have become captivated by it,” Shula Levi, principal of the high school, told The Jerusalem Post.
The robotics class, offered by the Yeroham Science Center, quickly turned into more than just an electives course.
“The whole idea of robotics is to study, implement your knowledge and compete – and for the girls it has been a long and rewarding process,” explained Levi.
“Studies have shown that when girls learn alone, without boys, they are more likely to study math and science. At first, every time they had to use a screw or a tool they would ask their mentor, a man, for help, but slowly they began to develop confidence and now they do everything on their own from the beginning to the end. It’s a beautiful change,” she said.
In February, the team won the Inspire Award at the inaugural Tech Challenge National Robotics Competition, and was chosen to represent Israel next month in the world championship to be held in St. Louis, Missouri.
An integral part of the FTC competition is not only to build a robot but to engage in community involvement.
As part of this project, the girls began teaching robotics in a nearby Beduin village with the goal of helping children there establish a robotics team.
Every Friday, the girls commute to a kindergarten without water and sometimes without electricity to teach robotics to 25 children from the age of four to 12.
“In going to a Beduin village, it shows that you can open your eyes to other places and help other people outside your own community. We all need to give back and help the other,” said Levi.
“In Yeroham, there is an atmosphere that we live one next to the other and we all want to make the best of it – to make all our lives better together,” she said.
“We want to promote a tolerant society that is accepting of the other – and that is what these girls are doing. They can teach robotics [to the Beduin children] but they can also learn something from them in return,” she said.
Adele Weizmann, the team captain, agreed.
“We were very excited about winning and especially about working with Beduin students,” she said. “We believe we can impact the community through science and robotics, and hope to be an inspiration to other students,” she added.
Ido Frommer, director of the Yeroham Science Center, said robotics have transformed the lives of children in his desert city.
Frommer, who has accompanied the girls on this project as well as countless other robotics teams, said in recent years Yeroham has become a “powerhouse of robotics.” He credits his predecessor, Dr. Rachel Knoll, for first introducing robotics into Yeroham eight years ago.
“She felt robotics would benefit the education system, and slowly began to implement it into every school in the city,” he said.
Israel may be known as the startup nation, but recent studies have shown that the percentage of students eligible for higher level mathematics and science matriculation certificates is in decline, a fact which Frommer is well aware of.
A recent Central Bureau of Statistics report found that only 15.8% of students completed matriculation certificates in both high level mathematics and one other science field.
The same report also indicated that mathematics and technology are still predominately male fields of study. Females constitute 37.7% of students studying STEM fields at the university level.
Eight years later, Frommer said, the results of Knoll’s vision are evident.
“Yeroham, despite its image, is ranked 11th place in Israel for children studying physics, and we are continually improving in mathematics rankings,” he said. “We start teaching robotics from the age of four and our [robotics] groups are improving and winning more and more prizes in international competitions.”
Frommer added that children involved in robotics studies are better at math and science, because it helps them “realize why they actually need the math and science. Learning robotics removes them from their poor or disadvantaged household and provides them with a sense of accomplishment. Suddenly they feel capable because they have the knowledge and this in turn affects the pupil’s entire school life.
“We want a child who grew up in Yeroham to have even more tools than a child born in the center of Israel so that he can fulfill his or her maximum potential. We believe in social mobility,” he said. “We may be a small town with a relatively low socio-economic standing but we are very high in achievements.”
With regards to the students from AMIT Kamah, Frommer said they are a prime example of how robotics can transform a community as well as its neighbors.
“The FTC competition and the project with the Beduin community has been a great success. It began with four or five children, and has now grown to 25. I don’t think that’ll be the end of it,” he said. “The girls have formed lasting friendships with the Beduin students, and will continue to go and volunteer and teach the children robotics.”
The girls will also go on to compete in the FTC World Championship in St. Louis against some 10,000 other students worldwide with the sponsorship of the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, PerryGo, OPC Rotem, Matechet Brand and David Globe. Unfortunately, the girls will not be able to win the national championship because the third and final round of the championship will take place on Passover, and so they will be unable to compete even if they do advance to the final competition,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said, the girls’ success will go far beyond one simple competition as they have proven that religious girls from the periphery can set the example and be leaders in science and technology in Israel.