Nobel Prize winner says Israel needs more science students

Chemistry prof Dan Shechtman develops program to teach ‘innovation’ at ORT vocational school chain, says teachers should be better too

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Israeli students seen on the first day of the new academic year. October 21, 2012. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)
Israeli students seen on the first day of the new academic year. October 21, 2012. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)

Nobel Prize winner Professor Dan Shechtman, world-renowned for his work in chemistry and material science, says Israel must do more to promote the study of sciences to make sure it keeps its technology edge.

“The government must encourage science and engineering studies at a young age,” Shechtman said in a phone interview last week. “All children must study the core curriculum and the government must raise the level of some of the teachers.”

Even as Israel has more startups per capita than any other country in the world, the so-called Startup Nation is facing an acute shortage of skilled workers, as students shy away from studies in computer science, math and statistics.

Israel’s high-tech industry will lack more than 10,000 engineers and programmers in the coming decade if the government doesn’t take immediate action to prepare students to meet the shortfall, the Ministry of Economy and Industry’s chief scientist warned in a report in June. The shortage in the number of engineers is the result of a decline in the share of Israelis graduating in the sciences, which fell from 13 percent in 2004 to 8.7% in 2014.

Nobel Prize winner Professor Dan Shechtman (Courtesy)
Nobel Prize winner Professor Dan Shechtman (Courtesy)

Shechtman, who has been running a course on technological entrepreneurship at the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology for the past 30 years, has developed a plan for innovation studies for Ort Israel Sci-Tech Schools, a network of vocational schools. The program is being implemented in eight schools in Israel and the organization hopes to spread it further and globally as well.

The aim, said Shechtman, is to encourage students to take up the study of science and to help them, though intensive courses, get the theoretical and practical knowledge they need to in future set up a startup. “I support this — the more people there are with practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge of how to set up a successful startup, that is good for them and good for Israel.”

The study program combines arts and innovation studies — although Shechtman was involved in developing only the scientific part of the studies. The curriculum has students working on projects in which a research question is posed by the needs of the community and the teams study the subject together with research institutes. When solutions are found — at the end of the study program, which lasts for a full school year, students can list a patent or set up a startup, Ort said. The studies are for 9th and 10th graders, and Ort is looking to expand the program to 7th through 12th graders.

“An important part of Israel’s high tech industry is its human capital, that is what we have,” Aaron Mankovski, managing general partner at Pitango Venture Capital and the chairman of Friends of Ort Israel. Mankovski will be co-chairing a conference on Tuesday, November 29, with Shechtman about the challenges of modern education.

The international conference, run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools, will bring together international businesses, high tech and education leaders and will focus on correcting global deficiencies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Aaron Mankovski, managing general partner at Pitango Venture Capital (Courtesy)
Aaron Mankovski, managing general partner at Pitango Venture Capital (Courtesy)

“Over the years the number of engineers graduating every year is in decline, and the problem in entrenched in our schooling system,” Mankovski, a graduate of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, said. “Students are looking for an easy way out and are not taking the highest levels of math and physics they need to proceed with an engineering or technology degree. So instead of going to study technology professions, students flock to areas in which there is no demand for work and a lot of supply of workers.”

The aim of the conference is to expand science education from teaching the basics of mathematics and science to include also art, design and innovation.

“To really innovate you need to think outside of the box, and not go down the path set out for you by others,” Mankovski said. “You need to think in directions that no one thought of before. The idea of the system we are creating here is to educate for creativity. Math is a very structured science, so if you combine it with art, which has no creative limits, you create an environment that can foster creativity.”

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