New worlds: Out of the blue

Prof. Nir Orion is developing a project that will be included in the Peruvian science curriculum.

Planet Earth (photo credit: REUTERS)
Planet Earth
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An educational module developed at the Weizmann Institute will be included in the Peruvian science curriculum. The country’s education ministry has decided to adopt the Blue Planet educational program that was created at the Rehovot institute. The module, which takes a hands-on approach to learning about the water cycles on Earth, has been recognized by UNESCO as a model program for environmental education.
The project’s developer, Prof. Nir Orion of the institute’s science teaching department, was recently in Peru leading a workshop for teachers.
“Learning is a natural process,” said Orion, “an instinct that almost all animals are born with. But like all instincts, it only comes into play when it is needed. Many children do not learn well in school because it is a system that is created to meet the needs of the system itself, and not those of the child.”
Orion believes that the learning instinct might be reawakened by creating a connection between the pupil’s world and the subject matter. Thus, his approach to teaching involves, among other things, an exploration of both the natural environment and the human ones that exist beyond the walls of the classroom. Lessons learned this way, which have some significance for the student, will be internalized and thus “truly learned,” he said.
Although the basic principles of the Blue Planet program remain constant, the change of location means that Orion goes out to survey each region, constructing a local narrative to guide the lesson plan. His “working files” tell the stories of Argentina, Chile, the US, India, Portugal and, of course, Israel.
In Peru, for example, he found that, even though the country receives a large amount of rainfall, the perception is that the region suffers from a water shortage. So the workshop focused among other things on the topic of drainage basins in populated areas.
Orion’s approach includes both out-of-classroom learning and learning inside the classroom.
“Some things cannot be taught in a deep way within the classroom,” he said. “When we use the outside environment properly, curiosity and interest arise. That is when the student starts to ask questions.”
The ultimate goal is to give the pupils the tools to think analytically, to take in their field and lab observations and arrive at conclusions, and to present their findings to others.
“If they gain the ability to integrate data, process it logically to arrive at knowledge, and present this knowledge orally and in writing,” Orion concluded, “they will be set for life.”
TAU RESEARCHER WINS NORWEGIAN PRIZE Prof. Yosef Shiloh of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Medical School has won the prestigious Olav Thon Prize – worth 2.5 million Norwegian kroner (NIS 1.3m.) – for his breakthrough research into how the living cell copes with DNA damage, which is among the main factors in cancer. The award will be presented to him on March 5 at a ceremony in Oslo. Shiloh, head of the unit for the study of cancer genetics in Sackler’s human molecular genetics and biochemistry department, is a member of the Israel National Academy of Sciences and the Arts and received the Israel Prize for Life Sciences in 2011. He previously received the EMET prize in Israel and the Clowes Award from the American Association for Cancer Research. Shiloh has made numerous scientific discoveries that added to the understanding of the human genetic disorder ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T).
ISRAEL-JAPAN BRAIN RESEARCH Following the recent visit to Israel of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a group of leading Japanese scientists participated in the Weizmann Institute Advances in Brain Sciences conference organized with help from the Riken Brain Science Institute in Japan. The two institutes are already working to advance scientific collaboration between them and the two countries.
Dr. Ofer Yizhar, one of the organizers, is involved in a collaborative research project with Riken researcher Toru Takumi, who creates mice that have a genetic defect that mimics autism. Yizhar’s optogenetics lab “can work with these mice, turning neurons in the brain on and off with light. Together, we hope to discover how autistic spectrum disorder develops in the brain and what neural mechanisms are involved in autistic behaviorisms,” Yizhar said.
Weizmann Prof. Rony Paz spoke about his findings on how our tendency to overgeneralize may sometimes work against us, for example, when memories of traumatic events turn into post-traumatic disorders. Prof. Shimon Ullman gave a talk on visual recognition – a subject that crosses the boundaries between neuroscience and artificial intelligence.
“Scientific and personal connections have deepened over the years, and we are currently planning the next steps of joint work in the future,” Ullman said.
“Riken is the premier brain research center in Japan and one of the best in the world,” says Prof. Yadin Dudai, one of the conference organizers. “We see that much of Weizmann Institute research complements that being done in Japan; there is great potential to work together in many areas. This can benefit both sides, and we hope to see more cooperation in the future.”