Kindergarten kids graduate from ABCs to robot building

Five-year-olds get head start for high-tech economy in World ORT program

Students present their project at the recent Robotraffic contest (Photo credit: Courtesy) Students present their projects at the recent Robotraffic contest (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Students present their project at the recent Robotraffic contest (Photo credit: Courtesy) Students present their projects at the recent Robotraffic contest (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Computers are nice, but if you want to get kids on the right high-tech track for future careers, you should be looking at robots.

“Robots give kids the opportunity to see how things work in the real world, giving them the experience of thinking and logic, along with hands-on experience with tools and processes,” Avi Ganon, CEO of the Kadima Mada project of World ORT in Israel, told The Times of Israel.

To that end, World ORT last year ran a pilot program in several kindergarten classes in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Yam, in which five-year-olds built their own robots, using the Lego Mindstorms robot kit. The robots that the kids produced weren’t too complicated — mostly figures with moving limbs, vehicles that could move a few centimeters, and cranes or arms that can pick up small objects — but students absorbed the principles of robot building.

The project more than met its goals, Ganon said.

“The robot is part of our integrated model of education in which we encourage kids to think and create,” he said. “The objective is to give them the skills they need to innovate and thrive in the creative high-tech economy. We believe that robots help the kids learn to think more creatively, exposing them to principles of physics, energy, environment, and infrastructure.

“We evaluated the abilities of students in the areas of cognitive, logic, and motor skills, and we found that they scored very well on scales, compared to the average kindergarten class,” Ganon continued. “We plan to expand the program during the coming school year, and hopefully bring many more classrooms into the project in the coming years.”

World ORT has been very active in technology education in peripheral areas of Israel, and especially in Kiryat Yam, where its Kadima Mada campus is the biggest secondary school technology campus in the country. But nearly all its activities have been on the high school level. This is the first project that Kadima Mada has run in kindergartens, a change that requires a “think different” attitude from staff, said Ganon. The project is directed by Dr. Osnat Dagan of MoreTech (the National Center for Educator Technology), in cooperation with Tel Aviv University.

This past year, the organization began implementing an ambitious “smart classroom” project, which will bring high-tech equipment and projects to 1,000 classrooms in the Negev and Galilee. The project, to be completed by 2013 at a total cost of NIS 100 million ($25 million), will turn classrooms into hotbeds of high-tech activity, Ganon said.

World ORT is also a big believer in “robot education,” having sponsored numerous contests inside and outside the country for high school students building advanced robots. In one recent contest, called RoboTraffic, teams from some 50 schools in Israel and abroad built car-shaped robots that operated in virtual traffic situations, with the robots negotiating a drive through several streets of a model city. The city was equipped with traffic lights, road signs, and obstacles, and the robots needed to automatically respond to road events, avoiding accidents and observing traffic laws. The vehicles operated autonomously, and had to be able to “sense” road events based on the programming done by students; no remote controls were involved.

Ganon said that his organization “worked hard to advance science and technology education among students. This contest allowed us to bring in World ORT groups from abroad, encouraging the connection between Jewish communities abroad and those in Israel, and providing a forum to exchange knowledge and ideas between students.”

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