Priming Israel's Innovation Pipeline

Maor, a gifted high school student in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, looked forward to his summer break: He was going to earn some money, get his driver's license and goof off with friends. So when his school principal asked him to attend a summer study program at Tel Aviv University, Maor balked. What about his big plans?

But Maor's father, a construction laborer, insisted on his son's going. No one in the family had ever even set foot on university grounds, and Maor was not going to miss this chance.

That was in 2001, and today Maor, at 28 years old, has a master's in engineering and management from Tel Aviv University. He is the first in his extended family to earn a degree and among the first in his age group in Sderot -- an impoverished desert city -- to work as an engineer. "Now I'm pulling my siblings after me," says Maor. "I already encouraged my youngest sister to take top-level physics and math classes in high school in preparation for science studies at the university. Next in line: my brother."

Maor's story is more than a heart warming boy-makes-good tale. High school outreach holds one of the keys to promoting science education, and particularly physics and math, among new generations of Israelis who might otherwise never consider this path. And without such a pipeline of science-literate young people, the "start-up nation" could become the slow-down nation. Israel, which today ranks fourth in the world in knowledge workers and six in knowledge creation, could lose its innovation edge.

The signs of deterioration are already here. A report released in late 2012 by Israel's National Economic Council revealed a clear downward trend in the number of high school students who excel in physics, at only 9 percent, and math, at just under 14 percent. Every year, 7,000 engineering jobs are added to the Israeli high-tech industry but only 4,500 people graduate with the necessary degrees to fill them. This could create a shortfall of 20,000 qualified workers in Israel within five years, according to the report.

The universities can and must play a major part in reversing this trend and reigniting a passion for science and technology -- starting with our youth.

On the most basic level, Tel Aviv University is closely involved in revitalizing science curricula for high schools and in training more and better math, physics and chemistry teachers. We are developing and testing new teaching methods that make science exciting and relevant for the digital age.

Second, in a program that could serve as a model for other institutions, we are reaching out to high school students -- like Maor from Sderot -- and exposing them to university life earlier on. Tenth to twelfth graders attend an immersive "Summer Youth University" and follow that up with advanced classes on campus in physics, chemistry and math during the school year. The cream of the crop are allowed to take courses that will earn them academic credits for their degree studies later on.

Our high school outreach is coordinated with the Ministry of Education to ensure that gifted young people are identified all over Israel. And this is my third point: Israel's future math and science whizzes cannot spring only from privileged households in urban centers. They must be found and nurtured from among the country's outlying cities, development towns and minority communities.

In a related program aimed at Ethiopian-Israeli junior high school pupils, university students go out to the schools to provide math lessons and tutoring, and the junior high-schoolers are brought to the University for science enrichment. Again, the goal is to open the door to math and science among young Israelis who are underrepresented in these fields.

Fourth, once students are enrolled in math and science departments at the university, our next objective is to motivate them to continue onto the graduate level. To this end, Tel Aviv University has established several honors programs that allow the highest-achieving undergraduates to begin their master's degree already in their senior year. The need for an added incentive in the form of scholarships makes this a costly process, but such programs are our best hope for attracting the brightest students to MSc and PhD programs in math, physics, chemistry and engineering.

Finally, teaching science is not enough if you seek to foster a culture of innovation. At our university we have actually seen an increase in the number of students with great ideas for businesses, but most of them have no experience with developing business plans or with the world of venture capital. An enterprising group of students and alumni opened a business development start-up right on the campus for mentoring young entrepreneurs and hooking them up with investors. The university administration has embraced and helped fund the start-up as something good for students, good for university culture and good for the Israeli economy.

Professor Joseph Klafter is the president of Tel Aviv University, which ranks 22nd in the world among research institutions for the number of patents.

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