The Hemda Centre for Science Education in Tel Aviv is one of the world’s great schools for bright kids. It recruits fantastic teachers to give them advanced instruction in physics and chemistry. It is unabashedly merit-based. Its most advanced course, a program in computational science, is called “MOAH” – a Hebrew word for “brain.”
Outside of Silicon Valley, Israel probably has the greatest concentration of innovators and entrepreneurs in the world. One reason is that it really prizes brains. Israel can survive only by using its brainpower, and everybody in the country knows it.
Canada has nothing like Hemda. That’s too bad, because we could use a lot more of the creativity and innovative mindset that Hemda fosters.
“We recruit for the ability to solve problems,” Tehilla Ben Gai, the school’s director, told me as she showed me around the bright and airy school. Its 1,100 students, who are in Grades 10 to 12, have all been assessed in person to see if they have the right stuff. “B and C students are sometimes smarter than A students,” she says. “We’re looking for students who are creative – and we teach them that science is fun.”
The students attend Hemda only for their science classes; they take their other courses at their neighbourhood schools. Forty per cent are disadvantaged, and some of their parents are illiterate. A third are girls, and some are Israeli Arabs. There are no traditional classrooms – all the learning is lab-based and hands-on. The teachers (some don’t look much older than the students) encourage teamwork. All are qualified to teach at university, but they love the challenge of working here. “These kids have skills that nobody else has,” one of them told me. Another thing that makes this school stand out – its classes run for 50 weeks a year.
The kids vibrate with enthusiasm. “I’m really into science and math because it connects to life,” one student told me. Every year, they are divided into teams and given a zany practical problem to solve. (One was: Devise a way to walk on water.) There’s also a yearly safe-cracking competition, in which teams of students construct computer-protected boxes and other teams have to figure out how to break into them. It’s no surprise to learn that two of the school’s graduates helped develop Stuxnet, a computer worm that has been used to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Israel needs technology for prosperity as well as for security. Unlike Canada, it has no natural resources to sell. Nor can it depend on friendly neighbours for its export markets. It has to search for markets around the world. Those are two of the challenges that make the culture so entrepreneurial, argue Dan Senor and Saul Singer in their bestselling book, Start-Up Nation. Two other essential factors are what they call “mission orientation and a cultural acceptance of the need to take risks.” Part of that mission orientation comes from compulsory military service, where men and women just slightly older than these students are given very large responsibilities. Military service produces young adults who are strikingly more goal-directed and mature than their counterparts in North America. And, as Mr. Senor and Mr. Singer point out, in Israel launching a start-up or going into high tech is almost a standard career track.
Every nation has its own distinct DNA. Canada can’t turn into Israel, nor would we want it to. But we could be far more ambitious about developing our talent. Our own version of Hemda would be a great place to start.