Boots on the ground in Ofakim
Israel’s first science pre-army prep program
When teenagers hang out together at two in the morning, quantum mechanics is not typically their chosen topic of conversation. But in the Davidson Institute’s new pre-military preparatory program, discussing science is one of the favorite pastimes of its young cadets.
Founded by Davidson Institute of Science Education CEO Dr. Liat Ben David, program coordinator Eli Amedi, and former Weizmann President Prof. Daniel Zajfman, this pre-military training unit—or mechina—is not just another gap-year program offered to high school graduates in Israel before they enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. Besides courses on Judaism, Zionism, philosophy, and Israeli society that are standard in every pre-military program, a substantial part of the Davidson mechina curriculum is devoted to science, mathematics, and technology.
“We wanted to create a program that stood out in the sea of gap-year programs that already exist in Israel—one that would allow youth to use science to strengthen their connection to their country,” Amedi says.
After two years of planning, the vision was realized, and Davidson’s new mechina program launched last summer in the southern town of Ofakim.
Twenty kilometers west of Beersheva, Ofakim was selected as the first site of what is hoped will be a series of similar science-oriented mechinot [multiple such programs]. A development town established in the barren desert in 1955 where the government placed immigrants from Morocco and Tunisia, Ofakim suffered from high rates of unemployment and poverty for decades, until renewal efforts over the last two decades began to change the face of the city.
“This town is situated in the center of the country where quality science education is still lacking,” Amedi says. “So it was the perfect location to launch this new mechina program.”
Selected for their passion for science, the program’s first 19 recruits moved into a small villa in the heart of Ofakim. Their daily schedule is filled with classes designed to enrich them physically, mentally, and spiritually: from philosophy, history, and science, to physical training, army preparation—and even yoga and mindfulness.
Once a week, the cadets visit the Weizmann Institute to meet with researchers and hear lectures. They analyze scientific articles, develop research skills, and discuss the business and ethics of science. They conduct research on topics of particular interest and give presentations to their housemates.
The cadets also devote 12 hours per week to volunteer at local elementary, middle, and high schools, teaching science and mathematics classes to more than 200 Ofakim students. Using hands-on lessons specially designed by the Davidson Institute, the volunteers teach classes during school hours, as well as run after-school enrichment programs.
On the frontlines of science education
“Working with the younger children is my favorite thing,” one cadet says. “Seeing them go from being nervous about working with unfamiliar tools to then seeing the excitement in their eyes when they build something like an electrical circuit with their own hands is really rewarding. Some of them have told me they wish our sessions were the science classes they were taught every day.”
“I find working with the high school kids the most rewarding,” another cadet chimes in. “I can feel how I’m helping them prepare for their final exams. Bumping up their matriculation exam scores by 10, 15 points would be a big change that could really affect their lives.”
The volunteer sessions do not only benefit the schoolchildren. In addition to the math and science the cadets learn, they pick up a myriad of valuable life skills. Particularly, they learn how to convey information in an engaging and inspiring way to a roomful of active children.
The mechina participants—who are not much older than the high school students they teach—have to walk a delicate line between teacher and friend, making the material fun while still presenting themselves as authority figures. All the while, they must ensure the students’ safety as they handle potentially dangerous materials, such as chemicals and soldering irons. With lessons that range from 45-minute classroom sessions to four-hour “science day” demonstrations at a community center, the mechina volunteers have to figure out how to hold the attention of different-sized audiences, as well.
But these challenges have turned out to be one of the program’s greatest strengths. What struck Prof. Zajfman when he visited the Ofakim schools was how much the students needed role models their own age.
“They are inspired, not by older seasoned scientists who already boast many achievements,” Prof. Zajfman says, “but by other relatable teenagers who have been given the opportunity to dream and learn simply because they came from cities with a more developed educational system.”
The pilot year of the Ofakim mechina program proved successful, and more than 80 candidates have applied for its second year, planned to launch in summer 2020 with 30 new recruits.
“One of the major goals of the mechina, as I see it,” remarks Dr. Ben-David, “is to influence society in Israel’s disadvantaged communities through its emphasis on critical thinking and knowledge-based decision making. The cadets, who become young scientific leaders in the community, are instrumental in this effort. This program is a game-changer, and we are looking forward to establishing more science-oriented mechinot in the future.”
The Ofakim Mechina is supported by the Perlman Family IDF Preparatory Science Education Fund and the Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman Foundation.