Cyber nation – Israeli kindergarteners being prepped as next techno-generation 

Cybertech Israel Conference and Exhibition, in Tel Aviv, on January 31, 2017. (Photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

One hundred children in a Beersheva pre-school are taking part in a pilot science and technology program whose aim is to equip the next generation with specific skills to help make the country a world leader in those fields.

The children, ages 3-5, learn science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in a project supported by the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Science, Rashi Foundation and U.S. aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin, which has offices in Beersheba. Their 300 annual learning hours involve hands on experimental and creative activities based on robotics, chemistry, physics and astronomy. The program is intended to supplement rather than replace traditional pre-school activities such as art and music, according to Maya Lugassi Ben-Hemo, the head of pedagogy at Beit Yatziv, the organization that oversees the program.

The program operates in the wider Israeli context where the vast majority of children are sent to kindergarten at a very young age and usually for the entire working day. This arrangement engenders early independence and stems from Israel’s initial nation-building years when both parents needed to work long hours in order to support their family on wages often lower than other Westernized nations and higher living costs. Many still do today.

“The significance of the knowledge the children gain in preschool will be felt in years to come, and it will surely be highly valuable on the personal as well as the national level,” said Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who attended the dedication ceremony.

The STEM program, however, does not stop at age 5, but continues right through high school and is an extension of an elementary school science program used by 40,000 pupils in Israel and run by Beit Yatziv for the Rashi Foundation.

As a nation Israel places great attention on children’s acquisition of technical knowledge and skills. For example, gifted 10th grade children can select cyber skills as one of the many after-school activities on offer, while some schools teach programming as young as 4th grade.

Israel has also just announced the establishment of a national center for cyber education in order to prepare children in a focused way for service in military intelligence roles and careers in industry or academia. According to a statement by Benjamin Netanyahu, the center, with a $6 million budget, aims to “increase the number and raise the level of young Israelis for their future integration into the Israeli security services, industry and the academic world.”

Globally the cyber security industry is growing dramatically with double the number of companies now compared to four years ago. Last year alone Israel created 65 start-ups in the field.

Another initiative to enhance Israel’s technology education is a coding Olympics, which includes events for school aged children from 3rd grade, with prizes including cash and the opportunity to join a programming camp. Some 50 international companies that have centers in Israel, such as Microsoft, Intel and Apple, run the competition.

According to Israel Advanced Technology Industries, Israel produces 7,000 high-tech jobs annually, but only 4,500 engineering graduates to fill them, which leaves a large and accumulating shortfall.

The range of new initiatives coming from government and the private sector is an encouraging attempt to plug the shortfall.