Making the desert bloom with robots

The study of robotics has blossomed in the desert town of Dimona since World ORT extended its programme of quality STEM-related extra-curricular activities there – and the evidence was seen in England when 22 World ORT students competed at the FIRST Lego League International Open Championship at the University of Bath last week.

The teenagers comprised two teams, one of which came an impressive 12th in a field of 93 teams from 35 countries. Earlier this year, the Dimona YOUniversity teams came third and fourth in Israel’s national FLL competition in Tel Aviv which had attracted some 500 teams.

“To come from a small town in Israel to an international competition and take 12th place is an amazing achievement,” World ORT Interim Director General and CEO Dan Green told the students when they visited ORT House, Camden, on Monday.

All the more impressive if you consider that none of Dimona’s schools offered robotics when World ORT set up a YOUniversity centre of extra-curricular studies there five years ago with the support of Toronto’s Moskoff family.

“Now every school in town has at least one or two robotics groups,” said Dimona team member Ron Manto. “If it wasn’t for the YOUniversity we wouldn’t have had the chance to do this.”

Enjoyment and satisfaction

Nir Gorman (left) and Nitay Ledany demonstrate their robots at ORT House. “We’ve learned to dream big,” said Nitay. “We can be the next generation of scientists and leaders of Israel because we have got the necessary tools in robotics.”

The multi-million-dollar YOUniversity programme managed by World ORT Kadima Mada is the result of a three-way partnership between the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, World ORT, and the municipalities in which the centres are situated.

There are now seven of these centres bringing under-resourced communities in the capital, Jerusalem, as well as the northern and southern peripheries activities of a standard usually only seen in the more affluent central conurbation.

One of the distinctive characteristics of the centres is the participation of highly qualified mentors and instructors drawn from academia and industry. One of them is electrical engineer Amir Ziv, who builds power plants for the American multinational conglomerate, GE.

“I’ve been a mentor at the Dimona YOUniversity for five years and seeing the kids grow and helping them to achieve gives me a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction,” he said.

With the support of his parents, who prioritised education, Amir has done well – but many of his peers in the development town of about 40,000 people have not, particularly with the closure of some traditional industries in recent years.

“There was nothing like this for me when I was growing up in Dimona. When school finished at lunchtime I had so much free time. Now kids have this YOUniversity, think what they can become!” Amir said.

Learning to ‘dream big’

The children themselves certainly do. They love the learning, cherish the camaraderie and appreciate the opportunities the YOUniversity brings them. And they don’t let their competitiveness outweigh their values of cooperation and social commitment.

Roi Ledany, Karina Shecherbachov, and Ron Manto demonstrate their robots at ORT House, Camden. “All the girls in our group are going to learn physics, electronics, robotics and things like that. I hope to work in high tech,” said Karina.

“We want to learn in high technology institutions like the Technion or we dream of Oxford and Cambridge – and now even Bath!” said Ron.

Karina Shecherbachov added: “All the girls in our group are going to learn physics, electronics, robotics and things like that. I hope to work in high tech.”

“We’ve learned to dream big,” said Nitay Ledany. “We can be the next generation of scientists and leaders of Israel because we have got the necessary tools in robotics.”

And by “tools” Nitay doesn’t just mean practical mechanical, programming and electrical skills. There’s also the ability to work in a team, to prioritise, to manage time and mentor younger students. Nitay and his friend, Nir Gofman, are graduating from high school this year but will be training new students over the summer to ensure that their accumulated knowledge is passed on to another generation.

They joke that the YOUniversity is like a second home because of the hours they devote to their robots in the afternoons and evenings – “we have a feeling of family when we’re together”, said Ron.

While they are justifiably proud of their achievements, the YOUniversity students are not jealous of them and make a point of sharing what they’ve learned with fellow robotics enthusiasts in Dimona’s school teams.

“They come to the YOUniversity to prepare for regional competitions and we like to help them. We upload team tips to social media, too, because it’s important to share our knowledge and jot just keep it to ourselves,” said Nitay’s brother, Roi.

It is, said Amir proudly, Zionism in action.