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Jerusalem ‘geek’ summer camp gives kids a leg up in hard sciences

Tech-Know-Play is all about building bridges and designing robots – as well as helping kids develop more confidence

Tech-Know-Play campers work on a bridge engineering project (Photo credit: courtesy)
Tech-Know-Play campers work on a bridge engineering project (Photo credit: courtesy)

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or engineer to build a robot, according to Shaiel Yitzchak, who just happens to be both those things. All it takes is an interest, Yitzchak told The Times of Israel; Tech-Know-Play will take care of the rest.

Tech-Know-Play is the summer camp Yitzchak runs in Jerusalem for kids who are interested in all things scientific and mathematical — the so-called geeks. The camp is geared for kids in junior high and high school, although Yitzchak has a camper this year who is all of eight and a half.

“I like the combination and mix, with different ages working with each other. What I really would like to see is more girls in the sciences,” Yitzchak said. “There is absolutely no reason for girls to stay away from engineering and physics, and I strongly encourage them to study the sciences in school, and enroll in programs like mine.”

Yitzchak himself has two master’s degrees, one of them in astrophysics, and worked as an engineer for many years before finding his true calling, which is teaching technology, math and physics to high school kids. Although he liked working in the high-tech world, “something was missing. I find teaching kids a lot more inspiring.”

Yitzchak decided last year to expand some of the extracurricular activities he conducted for students into a full summer program. The program includes building in-house model projects, such as bridges and buildings, although it’s not just theoretical: Among the activities Yitzchak has run is a re-engineering of Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, in which kids were tasked with figuring out the most efficient way of moving old ladies through the market, the best way to deliver garlic heads to as many stalls as possible, and “causing people to question the healthiness of buying their organic produce from someone who’s smoking,” said Yitzchak.

The other main tech activity in the camp is robotics, including designing the movement, manipulation, decision-making, planning and programming of robots, using the Lego NXT platform. Yitzchak’s engineering lab has over 141,000 elements, he said.

“All kids are interested in robotics – it’s a great hook for learning physics and engineering,” he said, and the camp even has a program where participants can build their own advanced computers. Not that’s it’s all lab work: The camp features field trips, such as visits to places like Intel and Google. And although it’s not the kind of camp where leisure activities like amusement park visits are stressed, Tech-Know-Play has some of those too, as well as movie nights, ball games, and other summer activities. “We have kids who, given a choice, would stay indoors all day coding and building, but it is summer and we do want them to get out a little,” Yitzchak said.

Obviously, Tech-Know-Play isn’t for every camper, and he conducts an in-depth interview with each applicant to determine if he and his staff can work with them to achieve their goals. Parents who have been disappointed with their how well their kids’ schools are teaching the sciences (and there are many such parents in Israel, Yitzchak said) push their kids to attend a camp like Tech-Know-Play in the hope that they can make up what they’ve missed during the school year. But of course, there has to be an interest in the sciences.

But an interest is all it takes; Yitzchak isn’t necessarily looking for geniuses. In fact, for him the entire robotics and engineering thing is a bit of a cover. What he’s really interested in producing are self-confident kids who can make their way through life optimistically and deal with challenges in a positive way, often a problem for kids who may suffer socially because of their special interest in science.

“That, by itself,” said Yitzchak, “is the greatest contribution I can make to these kids’ lives.”

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