Kids building robots; robotics building kids

The LearningWorks is oriented toward children interested in math, science, technology, engineering and especially robotics.

The LearningWorks students show their families the functional, automated city they spent a week creating at The HackerCamp (photo credit: ARIEL HERSHLER)
The LearningWorks students show their families the functional, automated city they spent a week creating at The HackerCamp
(photo credit: ARIEL HERSHLER)
Imagine having to deal with a situation like this.
You have an 11-year-old son who is quiet, introverted and perhaps even painfully shy. Unlike your other children, he has no interest in sports, few friends, and he spends all his free time in front of his computer, writing what appear to be algorithms and visiting websites that deal with what seem to you as some kind of higher math. What’s more, unlike virtually every other kid his age, he would rather take an iPhone apart, see how it works and put it back together again than use it to log onto Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram.
Or perhaps you have a science-loving nine-year-old daughter who, when asked if she’d like to join a field trip to a water park, tells you she would rather go somewhere to see how ocean water can be desalinated.
What do you do with children like this? If you live in or anywhere near Jerusalem, you have the option of letting your child join other like-minded and like-hearted kids at a small but ever-growing outfit called The LearningWorks. Oriented toward such unusual children’s interests as math, science, technology, engineering and especially robotics, The LearningWorks has for the past eight years run a summer program called The Jerusalem HackerCamp and a daily after-school program called ThinkHigher.
“My son goes to it. This is his second year,” says New Jersey native Shana Strauch Schick of ThinkHigher. “It’s a really wonderful group. It’s a place for kids who like computers and math and science and engineering to be with other kids who like those things. It’s a good place for them, a place where they feel they belong. The kids have similar interests and have a great time together.”
Saadyah, almost 10, likes computers, Star Wars and Harry Potter, Schick says. He also loves his teacher at ThinkHigher.
“It’s not just about learning. He was in other mathematics and computer hugim before. But this is also about working with other kids, collaborative team play.
That’s a point also. It’s not just about the content. And the teacher gives the kids a lot of love and support,” she adds.
The teacher is Shaiel Yitzchak, founder and guiding spirit of The LearningWorks and, with partner Ariel Hershler, its co-director. Forty-three years old with a background in education and two master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University, Yitzchak decided to switch to hi-tech before making aliya 15 years ago.
“I’d always done it anyways,” he recalls. “I was always the computer geek in the neighborhood. People used to bring me things so I could fix them. So I started a career in hi-tech. I was a satellite engineer for a while. I worked in hi-tech for a year and a half. And then I made aliya.”
Four years in the Israel Air Force were followed by more hi-tech, but Yitzchak was not happy.
“I got married, and my wife was pregnant with our daughter. I missed education a lot. My wife is a physiotherapist. She does geriatric care. She’d come home and say, ‘Honey, you won’t believe what I did today. I relieved the pain of this old woman. I increased the oxygen in her blood.’ There were big things she was doing to make a difference in the world. And while there wasn’t anything wrong with what I did, I wasn’t proud of it. I wasn’t embarrassed about it. I just wasn’t excited about it like my wife was. And we figured that one day we’d have to answer the question from our children, ‘What do you do?’ I wasn’t so happy with the answers I was going to have to give,” he relates.
So Yitzchak went back into education. Despite having the two master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins, he had to do a year of work toward certification in Israel. After clearing that hurdle, he taught in Jerusalem junior and senior high schools.
“It was good, but very quickly I got frustrated by the limitations,” he recalls. “You can do things in a classroom, but there are limits.”
As it turned out, however, there were also some significant opportunities. Because of his hi-tech background, one of the schools where he was teaching got him to do a robotics after-school program. He was tasked with having to prepare the kids for a robotics tournament in two and a half weeks. Yitzchak agreed, on condition that the kids be dismissed from classes and be allowed to come to the program early and stay late. That was the beginning of the road he is on now.
“We did so much great work! I covered so much with these kids. And I’m not just talking about things the school measures, like math and physics, but also confidence, their ability to communicate with each other and their ability to build a team. Very quickly. How to listen to each other and how to accomplish things that cannot be accomplished alone,” he says.
Soon enough, the tournament was over, and the kids returned to their normal lives. But several parents, impressed with their children’s motivation and achievement, prevailed on Yitzchak to put together some sort of summer camp.
Thus The HackerCamp was born in the summer of 2008. Yitzchak also stopped teaching at local schools and began teaching robotics at the Hebrew University, which was the focus of his new camp for kids.
What is robotics? Says Yitzchak, “Robotics is about constructing the hardware and programing the software to get a machine to do something exceedingly well. Why do I use robotics educationally? Robotics is fascinating, and I really like turning kids on to anything, whatever it is.
Sometimes it’s chemistry. Sometimes it’s the physics of ice cream. That’s fine, too. But with robotics, a kid can’t do it all by himself. So it’s required to understand human relationships to accomplish this. Kids need to work with each other in order to succeed. And I’ve seen few better motivators than the kids wanting to succeed at robotics. A kid can’t do it on his own. And this is true also when I teach it at the Hebrew University. You have three, four, five kids on a team. Some specialize in the planning, some in the engineering, and some in the integration. And some specialize in the software. It’s the symphony of all these things working together. You also have a lot of potential here for right brain, left brain work. It’s a hot topic for kids right now,” he explains.
One can easily see why. While the kids are building robots, robotics is, in effect, building the kids.
The LearningWorks lab now has 60 robots and 1.2 million Lego pieces for the kids to work with.
“It’s probably the best robotics lab in Israel, hands down,” says Yitzchak.
It is far superior, he says, to the robotics lab at Hebrew University.
“So much of what we take in in tuition gets re-invested in creating the best possible environment for the kids,” he says.
The LearningWorks has also been engaged in educational partnerships with Google and Facebook, as well as start-ups like Glide and BrightSource. These relationships have contributed to such ventures as HexaDyslexia, an app that increases the speed and retention of dyslexic readers, and Project Shroom – experiments that led to the creation of an anastomotic “species” of mushroom that biodegrades plastic bags.
Asked whether there is any basis to the stereotype of boys being better at engineering and girls being better communicators, Yitzchak replies, “In my experience, the younger the kids are, the smaller the difference is between who is good at what. As long as I’m running The LearningWorks, as long as it remains my brainchild, it is going to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. By the time kids are in 10th grade, there is in fact a difference. I don’t think they were born that way. I think that we’re doing this. We are expecting the girls and young women to be nice managers, and we’re expecting the boys to do all the grunt work. I don’t think there’s any real basis for this, and I don’t think it’s right. From what I’ve seen of the mind of a child, girls and young women can do the engineering every bit as well as the boys.
And boys can do the communication and group cohesion every bit as well as the girls. But the older they get, the bigger the difference. The difference is not natural, it’s learned,” he asserts.
Both the after-school activity and the summer camp have an admissions procedure that includes an application form – designed by kids at The LearningWorks – followed by a personal interview with Yitzchak. What are some of the admission criteria? “I want a kid who is curious, excited to learn, who is aware, who likes to think and who wants to be here,” he says.
“It’s no good if the kid’s parents are forcing him or her to go in the hopes that their child will ‘get smarter.’ That is a waste of time, as all the math, science, computers and robotics are not really what The LearningWorks is all about,” he adds.
“I really care about the teaching of values. The way I see it, the robotics and technology are the means, not the end. The question that I ask everybody in interviews is this: ‘You and a buddy have been working on a beautiful Lego Ferris wheel collider machine. You’ve been building it for four days, and in five minutes you and your friend are going to present it to the whole camp. You have three minutes left to build. There’s a last piece that needs to go into the machine. You think it needs to be a triangle, your friend thinks it has to be a circle.
You have three minutes left to build, and two minutes left to decide.
So what do you do?’” he says.
“I don’t really care so much about the answer. I just want the kids to have an answer. It’s about the process. Some of them say, ‘I’m going to let my friend decide because my friendship is more important than the thing we’ve been building.’ And some say, ‘If I know that my way is the right way to do it, then I’m going to do whatever I have to do to convince my friend.’ Afterwards I tell them, ‘Okay, the whole point about our camp and our hug is for you to work on the answer to that question. This is the whole point. You want to learn robotics? That’s easy. I’ll give you some Legos and a book, send you home, and you can sit at your dining-room table and do it yourself. But here, we’re going to focus on your answer to that question,’” he explains.
Of course, no one at The LearningWorks is likely to object if the kids do get smarter and have a lot of fun along the way.
For further information about The LearningWorks: For specific information about afterschool activity ThinkHigher: FullGuide_EN.pdf