Israel’s Cyber-Olympic kid finalists vie for championship

A massive gaming project competition aims to encourage students to choose tech as a career

High school students participate in the Cyber Olympics (Courrtesy)
High school students participate in the Cyber Olympics (Courrtesy)

Hundreds of kids gathered in Tel Aviv Tuesday, prepared for a knock-down, drag-out cyber fight, as they vied for the title of Israeli Cyber Champ 2016.

“Contests like this are the best way to bring out the best in kids who might be interested in building a career in the computer business,” said Shahar Bar-Or, CEO of the Israeli division of flash drive company SanDisk, and a co-sponsor of the Olympics. “If Israel is to continue being a leader in the tech world and the world’s premier start-up nation, then government, educators, and private enterprise need to work together to make that happen.”

SanDisk is ready to go beyond sponsoring an event in order to encourage more students to join the tech industry. “We have our eyes open at this event, especially on the teams consisting of 11th and 12th graders,” said Bar-Or. “We plan on giving internships to promising students who do well in the competition, whom we think will be able to contribute to projects.”

Companies like SanDisk – along with the dozens of others of private sponsors of “001,” the second annual National Cyber Olympics – have a strong vested interest in encouraging high-tech education.

“The success stories of the start-up nation – the billion dollar buyouts of Waze and others – are certainly an inspiration to many Israeli kids, 40% of whom say they want a career in high-tech. But only 10% of high school students are studying the subjects that would make them candidates for such a career, including programming, math, and physics,” according to Bar-Or. “If we want to continue being the start-up nation we have to do something to bridge that gap, and we see the Cyber Olympics as an important tool to achieve that.”

That’s crucial for SanDisk – the world’s largest maker of flash memory and inventor of the “disk on key” storage device – as well as for other multinational and local tech companies, like Intel, Microsoft, Google, Mellanox, and many others who signed on as sponsors of the Olympics. Without an ongoing supply of engineers and programmers to satisfy the strong demand by tech firms, companies may decide that, while Israel is a nice place to visit, it is not a place that can provide them with the personnel they need to develop new technology and try their luck in India and China.

“The companies involved raised over a million shekels for the event, and that was matched by the Rashi Foundation,” which provides funding to programs that promote education and opportunities for students, especially in outlying areas of Israel like the Galilee and Negev. “The Education Ministry is also funding the event, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, himself a former owner of a successful tech start-up, has been very supportive. Thanks to their involvement, we had 270,000 kids participating in the Olympics in some capacity, whereas last year, when the ministry was just an observer, we had just 60,000,” said Bar-Or.

Shahar Bar-Or (Courtesy)
Shahar Bar-Or (Courtesy)

The Cyber-Olympics can help develop that new generation of tech workers by making coding “cool,” said Bar-Or.

The Tuesday finals are the last stop in a contest that has been going on for eight months, in which thousands of teams throughout the country – consisting of students teamed by grade level, from third grade on – proposed and developed gaming projects that were submitted to teams of judges (from the tech companies involved and the ministry), with the best chosen for a semifinal round, further winnowed down for Tuesday’s event. Even so, there were about 200 teams in the various grade levels. Mentors, supplied by the companies, worked with the students.

“By having them program games and turning the event into a competition – a game itself – we hope to light a fire under these kids and motivate them to learn the skills they need to succeed in tech, and to realize that they need to learn those skills in order to succeed,” said Bar-Or. “Coding can be addictive, and the more kids we can ‘hook’ with events like these, the better.”

For various reasons – perhaps because of the way they are portrayed in the media – most Israeli kids say they want to be businesspeople or lawyers, not programmers. “That has to change if we are to remain the start-up nation, and we are doing what we can to bring about that change,” said Bar-Or.

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