A Salute to Graduates | Whiz-bang science program serves underprivileged Israeli kids

Silvan Shalom, an Israeli Knesset member and minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, had a tough childhood in one of Beersheva’s poorest neighborhoods. His father was murdered during a botched burglary when Shalom was 7, leaving his mother to raise eight children.

Shalom’s success story — one that took him all the way to the vice premiership in the current government — is the source and inspiration for a $4 million project to bring cutting-edge extracurricular education to middle-school kids from underprivileged backgrounds.

Launched last fall, YOUniversity is backed by Shalom’s ministry and World ORT.

Avi Ganon, CEO of World ORT Kadima Mada, visits YOUniversity’s campus in Nahariya. photo/courtesy world ort

“I am convinced that the most brilliant, freshest new minds in Israeli science are going to come from the periphery, from places like Dimona, Tsfat, Kiryat Gat, Nahariya and Nazareth,” said Ido Horresh, YOUniversity’s general manager, speaking about why his program focuses exclusively on children from development towns.

Those are the five cities where YOUniversity is operating its after-school science and technology enrichment classes. The science element fits in with World ORT’s vision — the organization has provided vocational and technical training for more than 130 years and now operates in more than 60 countries — as well as with Horresh’s own background as a professor and researcher in human genetics at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

“There’s no question that the future of the State of Israel has to do with science education,” Horresh said. “There’s a real brain drain in science happening now. If we want to keep this motor running, we have to invest in education at a young age.”

And the education has to be fun. To that end, there are no grades and very little static teaching in YOUniversity classes; it’s all about hands-on experience. For example, in the “Young Doctors” class, offered at all five YOUniversity campuses, students dissect pig hearts, visit local hospitals and practice putting casts on each other.

The popular Crime Scene Investigation course teaches genetics by allowing students to collect evidence, including fingerprints and DNA samples from hair fibers planted by the teacher beforehand.

Classes are kept small — no more than 20 per group — and costs are low. A token fee of less than $100 per class is charged for a full year, with scholarships available. Horresh calls this a “seriosity” fee, to ensure students commit to going to class. 

The model seems to be working. Some 3,000 seventh- through ninth-graders are enrolled. In Nahariya, 600 students are enrolled and 300 more are on a waiting list. Students are accepted based on a personal interview and recommendations.

Horresh has used his academic connections to forge powerful partnerships for teaching and supervision, including with the Weizmann Institute, Technion Institute, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. The latter developed the curriculum for YOUniversity’s popular architecture course. Other cool courses include food design, oceanography, website building, applied physics and robotics.

In the process of establishing YOUniversity, Horresh and his team made some interesting discoveries. The opening of Bar-Ilan University’s medical school in Tsfat has created a high demand for anything medical up north, while Kiryat Gat kids can’t get enough of electronics and computer science, in part because of the large local Intel plant. Dimona’s kids, in the Negev Desert, are fascinated by environmental technology.

The first five development towns that signed on had to provide a physical space for the classes and commit to supporting the project for 20 years,

World ORT and Shalom’s ministry have committed to fund the first two years, and  YOUniversity is set to expand at the end of the initial period to other needy Israeli communities.