High schoolers propose new model for railroad crossings

Idea wins competition in an attempt to help develop new safety procedures throughout Israel.

A new model for railroad crossings, created by ninth graders from Ben-Gurion High School in Herzliya, won a competition last week in an attempt to help develop new safety procedures throughout Israel. In 2007, five people died in collision accidents with trains (four pedestrians and one driver), according to Sarit Levi, head of data management for the Israel National Road Safety Authority. For this year, one accident was reported, but there were no deaths, she added. The ten students who collaborated towards the Mitchell Excellence 2000 project took first place among competitors from over thirty schools. They developed a system involving sensors and conveyor belts that would potentially detect and prevent collisions between trains and vehicles crossing railroad tracks. Policeman and representatives from the Israel Railways were among the judges. The model showed that if a vehicle or truck were to stop on railroad tracks for longer than four seconds, as detected by sensors, and an incoming train was close, an electronic system would send a warning to the train and would immediately stop its approach. In addition to halting the train, sensors before and after the tracks would detect the direction of the stopped vehicle, and conveyor belts would move it forward and out of harm's way. Hoping to make the model more realistic for use in Israel, the students thought that including solar panels to help generate electricity would help improve the system's efficiency, especially in railroad crossings in the south of the country. The program was initiated by the Society for Excellence through Education, which aims to help students learn through actively addressing problems, the organization's Educational Initiative Manager Shayke Shafrir told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. The competition is also operated by the New York-based Gildor Foundation, which funded the program, and provided prize money to the winners, which is earmarked towards educational material for the school. "The program started eight years ago in hopes of teaching students to think and learn in a new way," Shafrir said. "The [goal] is for them to learn how to work together as a group and solve problems that belong to all of society." At first, the students were overwhelmed by the issue of railroad safety and thought that if engineers could not think of a better solution, they would certainly not be able to find an answer. But after working together since November on their model, the students became more self-confident about the results of their work, according to Shafrir. "Many of the principals from different schools said that they would have to tell the students to go home because at eight o'clock at night, they were still working on the project at school," Shafrir said. "They would work and work, and they loved it. They are now [inspired] to work on more projects, and are starting to think about knowledge in other ways." Students from Ben-Gurion High School were very excited about the project and had high expectations from the beginning, according to their teacher, Hemda Greenstein. They started their model by first consulting professionals for information and about technical aspects of the project. Only materials that can be realistically used for a national-scale production were used and suggested by the students' model, in order to find an actual solution for the collision problem on railroad crossings, Greenstein added. "The students said that they wished [the project] would not remain as a model for learning, but hoped that it could also be used in reality," she said. Joseph Prashker, chief scientist for the Ministry of Transportation, applauded the students' effort and original model, but added that the use of conveyor belts is not a practical solution. The maintenance that highly technical railroad crossings would need would introduce another problem, he said, but added that he wanted to encourage the students and compliment them on their hard work. "Usually our policy is that [implementing the model into reality] is not the main mandate," said Avi Poleg, head of the judging committee. "The [goal] is mainly education, but we believe that the ideas can lead to other progress with other solutions."