Ariel Heimann

Dr. Ariel Heimann, former director-general of the Davidson Institute of Science Education. (photo credit:ITAY BELSON)

“As a country we don’t fully realize how dangerous this threat is,” says Dr. Ariel Heimann, former director-general of the Davidson Institute of Science Education (the educational arm of the Weizmann Institute), “Everyone keeps talking about the Iranian threat, but it’s not so certain a bomb will ever reach us. What is certain, however, is that without Israeli science, we have no Israeli future.”

After serving for almost 10 years as the director-general of one of the top science education institutes in the country, Heimann pinpoints the dangers of the growing shortage in science teachers in schools, and to potential ways out of this situation.

Heimann grew up in Jerusalem. He served in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, and later in the Armored Corps. While studying geology, he progressed in ranks in the reserves and became chief reserve officer – the first in that role. After four years, he went back to the academy – until a fateful call from the Davidson Institute during a ski vacation opened a whole new chapter for him, this time in education.

The Davidson Institute is like the Education Ministry’s R&D team, jokes Heimann, in that they develop programs and materials that the ministry can later use nationwide.

“In terms of budget, the ministry has about a thousand times more than we do. The same goes for all other organizations dealing with education that are not part of the ministry. Having said that, there is much we can accomplish. Davidson is the country’s largest science education organization. We can provide solutions for children who aren’t getting what they need from the ministry, and we also see what’s going on around us. We can spot and alert the ministry about trends and changes.”

Breaking the cycle

Davidson’s contributions are certainly needed, according to Heimann, who posits that Israel is currently under an existential threat much more serious than any Iranian nuclear bomb: the great scientist and engineer crisis. He describes it as a long-lived cycle, currently impossible to break.

There is a severe shortage in physics and chemistry teachers, says Heimann; for that reason, teaching those subjects to middle-schoolers is left to biology teachers, who are not qualified enough in physics or chemistry, but do the best they can to struggle through it. This kind of teaching leaves children uninterested and fails to spark their curiosity; they don’t elect those subjects in high school and do not pursue degrees in them – and once again there is no one to teach the subject to the next generation.

Even those who do choose to study physics or chemistry in high school don’t necessarily end up with careers in them. Some simply go on to pursue other interests. For the few who do end up with those scientific degrees, says Heimann, there is a whole industry out there that offers twice or three times the money and very different challenges.

The problem goes beyond physics class, of course.

“In order to study physics, you need to also study at the five-point math matriculation level, and we’ve seen a dramatic fall in math in recent years. From 12,000 to 14,000 students going for the five-points matriculation exam, we’ve now dropped to 8,000. We’re currently undergoing a positive change there; there’s a more talk about it in the media and more support for teachers. But the problem is not over. Our goal is 18,000.”

Still, even as math is getting some good press, science is still too far from the spotlight, he says. Making sure the country has a future – in this case, in the sense of making sure we have enough scientists – means breaking the cycle once and for all. This means taking care of the teachers.

“The most important part of the cycle is always the teachers,” stresses Heimann

“We need to change their status. That’s a big phrase that’s been said so often, but it’s true. A teacher’s status has two parts. One is recognition, awareness of the importance of the teacher. That’s already changing, although not enough yet. It will take years and needs to actually be a fundamental change. The second part is money. The teacher’s financial condition needs to change – all of it, from day one to retirement. New programs in recent years are already making progress, but it’s not enough. At the moment, a science teacher on their day of retirement still doesn’t make as much money as an absolute beginner in the industry.”

Opportunity-disabled

Even with the lack of science teachers and proper science education, Tel Aviv, for instance, is still much better off than cities and towns in the periphery. The farther you go from the center, explains Heimann the worse the situation you find.

“When a teacher in Rehovot or Ra’anana or Haifa says they want to bring parents into the classroom to tell the children about their jobs, there’s a good chance at least one of those parents is a scientist or an engineer in a successful company. So all those children get to have role models in science. But once you step even just a little bit away from the center, the chances of that happening go down quickly. Every decent sociologist will tell you how important role models are at those ages.”

Role models are only the tip of the iceberg. The underlying problem, as with teachers, is money.

“Kids in Rahat, Karmiel or Tiberias don’t have the same facilities as those in Rehovot. When De Shalit High School in Rehovot wants to organize a class activity at the Davidson Institute, they walk there, but a class from Shlomi has to travel on the road for four hours, and they would probably prefer to stay overnight to make it worth the trip; that means having to pay for lodging in Davidson. And we haven’t even mentioned the parents’ financial state, money for after-school classes, whether such classes even exist… ”

Put together, that leaves schoolchildren from the periphery in a highly disadvantaged position.

“The odds of that kid studying fivepoint physics and then finding a job at a major firm like Intel are very low...

“[Children in the periphery] have a serious lack of opportunities and it’s the job of all of us to help as much as we can.”

THE SAME goes for another major divide: gender. The gender gap in science is equally important, says Heimann, but it actually has nothing to do with science itself, and everything to do with societal roles and habits. In fact, he clarifies, when you look at graduate students in scientific subjects you see about a 50%-50% status. The problem begins when you look a little higher up the ladder. A serious gap between men and women exists in the universities’ staffs.

“This goes back to why most schoolteachers are women as well: it’s a more convenient job for a parent. Life at the Davidson Institute, for instance, is relatively flexible. Some people arrive at 7 a.m., some at 9 a.m. That’s no problem. Being a scientist, on the other hand, is almost akin to slavery, both emotionally and sometimes physically, too. Many women who are mothers prefer teaching over being a scientist, because when two parents want a career, and the situation is that one necessarily has to give up on theirs, it usually ends up being the woman. Why is that? There’s no objective reason. And that’s the problem that needs to be fixed.”

Problems begin even earlier, though, with various societal obstacles keeping girls away from science, at least more so than boys. Girls have no trouble studying physics, explains Heimann, but perhaps we need to find a different way to teach them that’s not based on how boys need to be taught. He gives as example an experiment currently under way at Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, where boys and girls are being purposely taught math separately, to try and understand the two groups’ different needs.

Another example comes from Davidson’s annual safe-building contest in physics. The children work in groups all year and finally present their work and try to break into each other’s safes.

“I walk up to the groups, which are often boys and girls together, and say, ‘Who’s going to tell me a little about the project?’ It’s almost always a boy who steps forward to talk. Yet when you’ve got a group of girls only, which is not often, but it does happen, they always win first place.” In other words, he concludes, it’s not about ability.

Other obstacles need to be fixed and tools need to be strengthened, such as girls’ courage and self-confidence, to achieve more fluidity in gender roles.

The future

Regardless of who builds it, the future is technology, according to Heimann, and that makes studying middle-school science even more important.

“Research thinking is an important tool for life,” he notes, for every profession. We live in an age of science and technology; they are critical in our world and everyone needs to be able to understand them.

“Good science teachers teach thinking habits for life. They teach the process of looking at existing data, asking questions, collecting information, comparing new data and reaching a conclusion. It’s important for deciding which refrigerator to buy and for higher scientific pursuits. Asking questions and being curious – that’s not just for scientists, that’s part of being a good citizen.”

Technology plays a bigger role than ever in education and that role will only grow with time. For example, the Davidson Institute offers online classes for children whose high schools do not offer chemistry majors. It has also produced a science quiz app and runs a successful website full of content and articles.

The goal is to draw people in and engage them in this important topic. The more people are engaged with science – adults and children alike – and the better access they have to learning resources, the greater the chance of them ending up scientists or even science teachers and eventually eliminating that biggest threat of all, the scientists crisis.

“If the Iranian bomb does come, it will only be stopped by technology, so we’d better have as many children as possible studying sciences so we’ll have the staff to further develop Iron Dome and other programs, too.”