Fewer than 10% of Israeli high school students take advanced courses in math and science — and at Intel, that’s bad for business. One possible remedy is a joint effort by the sprawling multinational and the Israeli government to change the emphasis in schools.

“Especially in a country like Israel, where Intel is such a large part of the economy, we need to encourage more kids to study math and science, because if we don’t, Intel, and Israeli society in general, will have a hard time developing the technologies of tomorrow,” said Shelly Esque, Global Director of Intel’s Corporate Affairs Group.

“Unfortunately, STEM education is in a crisis,” said Esque. “Even in India, there are fewer high school graduates entering engineering each year.” STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — the “hard” subjects that tech development is based on.

That’s why this week Intel had its first STEM Conference in Israel. The Jerusalem conference featured speakers and panels discussing educational policy, especially how to encourage more kids to study STEM subjects.

Among the speakers was Education Minister Shai Piron, who said, “The 21st century sets before us challenges that require deep-rooted changes in the method and objectives of education. Our intention is to institute major innovations in the educational system over the coming years that will encourage the study of tech-related subjects and encourage ‘out of the box’ thinking.”

Shelly Esque (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Shelly Esque (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Intel knows all about encouraging STEM studies, said Esque. “We have programs encouraging science and technology education in many countries, helping kids in high school and even younger grades to appreciate STEM and choose technology as a career option. Policy makers in all countries realize the importance of STEM, because the more science and technology, the more prosperous a country is. Encouraging this kind of education is an important part of our corporate responsibility.”

To meet this goal, said Esque, the company has a full range of ready-to-go curricula that teachers and schools can use, from the earliest grades till after high school. For kids in the upper grades, Intel has a range of practical programs, such as supplying mentors to a community to work directly with kids, hands-on training, internships, competitions and more.

That’s true for Israel as well, said Mooly Eden, Intel International Senior Vice-President and CEO of Intel Israel. Fewer than 10% of high school students in Israel are enrolled in advanced mathematics programs (the “five math unit” modules), generally required for admission to top-flight math and science programs in universities. Enrollment in these modules has fallen by almost half since 2006, Education Ministry figures show.

In addition, Israel has seen a dramatic fall in recent its PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) rating, based on tests in math and reading skills given to students in all Organization for Economic Development (OECD) member countries, with Israeli students ranking 40th out of 64 polled countries. If things don’t change, Eden said, Israel will find itself behind the international pack. “Without a major commitment to promote STEM education, the book called Start-Up Nation will turn into a history book, not a reflection of reality,” she warned.

Intel has a lot riding on Israeli tech success. Intel Israel is by far the country’s biggest tech employer, with over 9,800 workers at dozens of locations around the country, mostly at its R&D facilities in Haifa and Jerusalem, and at its chip fabrication plants in Kiryat Gat. Over the past 40 years, Intel Israel has exported $35 billion of goods on behalf of the country, “at least a few percent of the total number of exports over that period,” said Eden.

“Over the years Intel has invested $10.8 billion in Israel,” said Eden. “Taking into account all of the services and outside contractors we use, Intel’s activities on Israel is responsible, in our estimation, for some 30,000 jobs in the Israeli economy. Last year, Intel Israel was responsible for more than 9% of Israel’s tech exports, which account for half of overall exports, except for diamonds.”

Turning around Israel’s STEM education problems is too big a task for any one company — even Intel. It takes a high-tech village to fix things, said Esque, and Intel has hooked up with 100 partners in industry, government and social service to implement programs in Israeli schools.

Companies like Mellanox, Microsoft, Cisco, Qualcomm, and many others — multinationals and Israeli-native companies — are teaming up to provide mentors, funding, curricula, summer camp experiences, after-school programs, and scholarships to students who choose STEM education.

Among those partners is Broadcom, a US manufacturer of networking equipment with a large presence in Israel, which provides scholarships for high school students who excel in STEM, and sponsors Israeli junior high school students to participate in the Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars) annual science contest in Washington, DC.

“We believe that junior high grades are the best place to encourage students to adopt STEM as a career, because those are the grades many students decide what direction to take,” said Broadcom Vice-president Dr. Shlomo Markel. “Science and tech has to be fun and exciting, and the prospect of winning a free trip to Washington is a great motivator for kids to push themselves and develop unique projects.”

Intel, too, believes that some “bling” is necessary to attract kids to STEM, and it sponsors its own contests, like the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) — which, in 2012, generated its own genuine YouTube star, Jack Andraka, who at 14 developed a paper-based sensor to detect pancreatic cancer that is faster and cheaper than existing tests, and whose video garnered over 2 million views on YouTube.

“This kid is no nerd,” said Esque. “Jack shows that tech can be cool, and that’s something we work very hard to encourage.”

Policy purists often tell Esque that public education is no place for private enterprise to stick its nose. They feel the people’s elected representatives are supposed to take care of things, using the money citizens pay in taxes.

Esque doesn’t see Intel and other multinationals replacing government — just helping it. “We are not here to replace the Education Ministry,” she said. “Our role is advisory, and we only provide help if we are asked to, by working with government to identify gaps and providing help where it’s needed. We don’t do anything without that consultation process.” But it’s government — in Israel and around the world — that is pursuing the relationship with multinationals, said Esque.

“The governments want private sector input. Educational systems, either because of ennui or budget issues, are slow to respond to changing realities. They know their students need to be prepared, but often don’t even know what that preparation entails. We, who are developing the technologies of tomorrow, know what skills are going to be needed and how to train for them — and governments, we have found, are very anxious to develop programs that respond to those needs,” she said.

“I find the partnership to be a natural one,” added Esque. “After all, we both want the same things — kids who are excited about tech, and who will help us build the future.”