Those of us who have raised children, in any country, are familiar with the frustration of feeling that a child is not receiving the level of enrichment that she deserves and craves, and as both a mother and an educator, I’m no different.
So it was with great interest that I visited the premises of PICO Kids in Jerusalem. In an earlier article on Elie Wurtman (The Jerusalem Report, February 21), I quoted him as saying that his goal is “to build bridges and fix the world.” Wurtman is furthering that goal by having created an educational youth project to teach, encourage and inspire young people to fix the world through science, technology, innovation and – perhaps most important – through motivation.
In addition to contributing to fixing the world, he is providing an essential service to children and teens who need more than what their schools are providing. He brings them together with other young people throughout the greater Jerusalem area with similar talents and interests, and the PICO Ambassadors program has them meet with young people from other countries, with whom they learn to collaborate and create.
PICO’s stated missions are to teach 21st-century skills in a value-based framework, to expand children’s and teens’ horizons and teach them about the Start-up Nation, to educate them to be problem-solvers, and to share Israeli innovation with global youth.
In the framework of its Ambassadors program, PICO Kids sent 16 kids on an inaugural trip to Dubai, the UAE, in December. Among those who made it possible was PICO Venture Partners, headed by Wurtman. Others who they thank are His Excellency Helal Saeed Al Mari, member of Dubai’s Supreme Council and CEO of the Department of Tourism and Commerce, and His Excellency Khalfan Belhoul, CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation. This was all made possible after the Abraham Accords.
There they met 20 other kids from Egypt, the US, Africa and China with whom they thought, interacted, and created over the course of six days. Previous PICO Ambassador trips had been to Hong Kong and Shanghai. Their goal is to create 10 delegation exchanges over the next three years, reaching 500 kids.
Three of the “ambassadors” at the PICO center in Jerusalem were Amit Shay, 14, a student at Ort Pelech High School for Boys, and Tamar Gur 16, and Nevo Revivi 15, both students at Keshet High School, all in Jerusalem. They said the trip to the UAE had been fun, and a meaningful experience.
After preparing for a year and a half, “we arrived at a moment of satisfaction for what we brought from our countries,” said Revivi.”
Gur said that while “we were from different cultures, we were the same in that we would be those who lead in the future.”
Shay described the Water Scarcity Makethon. “It was about water in the Middle East. The whole group received a challenge and we thought about ideas. We all had to solve problems involving water.”
The four challenges presented to the teens were to try to solve issues of sanitation, consumption, purification and agriculture. They were seeking out-of-the-box solutions and presented their projects to their peers, teachers and distinguished guests in a closing ceremony.
“We created a system in which the water that remains from the shower will be used in the toilet,” said Revivi, citing one example. He described how someone invented a bottle cap with a built-in filter. Other projects of the wider group included the utilization of water in the desert. The challenge was based on the UN SDG (Sustainable Development Goals). The young people had to think about design, methodology and creating prototypes. “It was a preliminary process to find solutions that are possible, that can really be implemented.”
PICO Kids, and the participants themselves, emphasize that collaboration is the key.
Why water? The written materials that PICO distributes explain the project with great clarity.
“Water is the basis for life and covers about 71% of the earth’s surface,” it said. “Life cannot be sustained without fresh water.”
The issue of transporting water is also emphasized, as “transporting water from place to place causes extensive harm to nature, incurs high costs and is often inefficient.” They share with us a stunning statistic: “In the year 2019, 845,000,000 people did not have access to drinkable water.” This problem of freshwater is common to both Israel and the UAE.
We have all heard about Israel’s successful desalination of seawater, which provides 80% of our drinking water. But the PICO program claims that desalinated water is less nutritional, demands high energy consumption, and is costly. In addition, there is always the danger of damage being caused to desalination facilities by those who wish to harm the system.
What was it like being together on this trip in such an intense program?
“It’s complicated, you know, being with friends non-stop, without family, together with each other and no free time from anyone,” said Shay. “It was intensive but in a good way.”
The three agreed that even though they were born in different places, they are all the same, and peace will start with them.
Meidan Alkobi, program manager of PICO Kids, says that the goal of the Ambassador program is to create something thorough, and to create a dialogue between the children and the countries from which they come, to understand the new reality, the roadblocks, and how one overcomes them – everything in a positive way – built around these values. To become leaders.
PICO Kids is open all year. Tucked away behind a parking lot in the industrial area of Talpiot in Jerusalem, one enters a compact and impressive incubator called the “Makerspace.” It is open to students from Grade One through 12. The Innovators, Leadership and Creators programs, for teens, are usually for graduates of previous PICO programs and is more selective. There is an application process to participate in those programs, and many of them are then accepted to the ambassador leadership program. There is also a Robotics program and Summer Technology camps.
In addition to the welcoming common area that includes a food bar with healthy treats and juices, a version of the first Israeli-made car, rustic wooden tables and chairs for group work and schmoozing, there are rooms well-equipped with scientific and technological equipment to both teach and create.
There are 3-D educational tools and equipment for studying science and math, a 3D printed cast for broken limbs, an electronic space-vehicle that can drill on the moon’s surface in order to discover water, 3D models of the moon and of Einstein’s head bust, and a model of a NASA spaceship that was being built by the PICO kids. There are also programs that teach carpentry, content creation and movie-making.
PICO Kids was opened in 2012 and has more than 4,000 annual participants, from 60 schools in Jerusalem, with 15% coming from lower socio-economic households. Like the whole PICO program, the “ambassadors” are also from various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
The most recent PICO project was a “Mission to the Moon Makeathon” on March 14 that was attended by 120 girls and boys from across Jerusalem. Throughout the day, working in teams, participants attempted to solve four different challenges in the field of lunar research: water, energy, environment, and agriculture.
The winning projects sound like something from a science fiction story:
“Mobile solar panels on wheels, which are attracted to the illuminated parts of the moon, where they absorb the sun’s energy, producing power from it... A space vehicle designed to drill inside craters and reach deep layers containing ice crystals. The rotation of the bulldozer produces heat that melts the ice and turns it into liquid water remaining in liquid form, which can then be used by humans. A greenhouse for sprouting potatoes, transferring the sprouts to large greenhouses inside colonies on the moon, and having the oxygen that the plants produce be recycled and used for humans to breathe.”
Wurtman said that participants “used techniques and skills that they learned in our Makers programming, including 3D printing, electrical circuits, web programming, carpentry and plaster casting. A day of teamwork, problem-solving, creative thinking and great fun!”
PICO Kids launches young people into the next generation of scientific discovery and creativity on Earth while reaching for the moon. ■
More information at: www.picokids.org