Building blocks for the future

" I think it has been an amazing positive force for change, using technology to break down barriers – economic and social – and putting everyone on an equal playing field.”

Efrata Elementary School pupils take part (photo credit: Courtesy)
Efrata Elementary School pupils take part
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 Elie Wurtman wanted to make a difference.
The serial entrepreneur, venture investor and technology company executive is not one for small steps. His goal is to create true change, and if the initial success of the First Lego League in Jerusalem is anything to go by, he may have initiated an educational revolution in Israel’s capital.
The First Lego League is a robotics competition for kids, where they compete under specific conditions with robots they designed, programmed and built.
While the project took off in different cities across Israel, it wasn’t until Wurtman’s involvement that it truly arrived in Jerusalem.
Wurtman was interested in advancing science, technology and innovation education, and decided the FLL could be a productive way to do so. Under PICO, the banner under which he runs his business and nonprofit activity, he set out to bring FLL to as many kids in the capital as possible. Three years into the project, the results have been nothing short of amazing.
“There were 250 groups in Israel, but only five or six groups in Jerusalem. I just couldn’t believe it,” Wurtman told In Jerusalem about the early days of the program in the capital three years ago.
“Very much like in venture capital, I decided that I wanted to make a difference and build a big program in Jerusalem that people would notice and that could ultimately be able to impact science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the capital.”
Selling the project to wary principals and teachers wasn’t always easy, but everyone soon realized its great benefit.
“We set up an environment that is more like a hi-tech garage, creating a level of engagement and enthusiasm that we may be losing in the classrooms,” he explained.
“So I set out to myself a goal of doubling the size of the program every year. In the entrepreneurial world you say ‘go big or go home’ and I knew that if I get big enough eventually there would be a domino effect.”
Three years into the project, Jerusalem currently has 36 active FLL groups, with more than 400 children participating in the activities on a regular basis.
“It is quite magical. There is energy and excitement created through the competition that we can’t get to through the traditional classroom,” he noted.
“The children to want to learn more and achieve more.”
One of the centers of the program in Jerusalem has been at Seligsberg High School in Talpiot. Thanks to Wurtman and inspirational teacher Erez Nachmanson, FLL has in many ways transformed the fortunes of the school.
“We started three years ago with one group that finished in last place in the regional competition, and since then the program has grown to five groups who were in the top 10 spots in the regional competition, with two of them participating in the national competition,” said Wurtman.
“This impacted not only the children, but also the school and the community. I think it has been an amazing positive force for change, using technology to break down barriers – economic and social – and putting everyone on an equal playing field.”
Seligsberg principal Tomer Oshry echoed that sentiment.
“It has been amazing. This goes far beyond education,” he exclaimed.
“Education is something very arduous and sometimes also very frustrating. Things you want don’t always work out the way you planned. There are a lot of difficulties and hard work. So suddenly when you have a ‘wow’ moment like this, when an educational initiative succeeds despite all the difficulties, it truly is amazing.”
The success of FLL in Jerusalem has also caught the attention of the city’s political establishment, with the Yerushalmim party, which holds the municipality’s education portfolio, aiming to incorporate the project into the education system’s curriculum.
“We decided to try to push this program of Elie’s into the education system in the city so that we can leverage the donations with a budget from the municipality and enable the program to grow and spread to more schools,” said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum of the Yerushalmim party, who will enter the city council in May and has been working for a number of years to advance a start-up and hi-tech ecosystem in Jerusalem.
“We don’t want this to remain a privately sponsored project. The municipality should embrace this and make it part of the curriculum in schools. That is the dream.”
One of the schools that joined the program this year is the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Midrashiya Girls’ High School.
“We wanted to encourage the girls to do well in sciences but it took off far more than I expected,” said principal Merav Badichi.
“I thought that we might have a small group, but was amazed that one of our teams reached the final of the national tournament in Tel Aviv.”
One of the main goals of the program is to promote values, with Wurtman explaining that the three pillars of the project are robotics, research and values.
“It is not about the competition, but how we get there and the way we work together,” he detailed.
“It breaks down traditional barriers that we have in school. What happened this year that was exciting was that people in the city’s education department took note. I think we are reaching the stage that we can go from hundreds to thousands participating in the program and open children’s eyes to the magic of technology and innovation.”
Wurtman knows all about success, having played an active role in several high-profile start-ups. Since 2006, he has served as a general partner and led successful investments on behalf of Benchmark Capital Israel.
Prior to that, he served as chief executive officer of JVP Studio, a Jerusalem-based venture capital firm, where he focused on early-stage consumer and media investments.
He also served as interim CEO at several of the firm’s portfolio companies.
He is hoping that more than 1,000 children in Jerusalem will take part in FLL next year.
“We are talking about robotics, but there is a fundamental mind shift and this is what’s interesting,” he stated.
“The robotics part and the research is very exciting, but there is also a new approach to learning, which I think that in the long term we will benefit from, as we are going through this dramatic change from a classroom based on books to a classroom based on books plus modern technology.
“I see this program as having a long-term fundamental impact on education,” he added.
“Bringing new technology and innovation into the classroom is critical. We are obviously a high-tech society and we need to do more of this. All of a sudden, because of this program, children have taken interest in science and other areas that were getting lost.
“What we want to do is make learning fun and meaningful for children in the city.”