For children and teenagers in some of Israel’s poorest communities, theHebrew University Youth Divisionprovides the first opportunity to imagine a future that includes higher education and ambitious career prospects.

Based in theBelmonte Science Centre for Youthat theEdmond J. Safra campus of the Hebrew University, in Jerusalem’s Givat Ram neighbourhood, the Youth Division does outreach and provides a vast range of scientific educational programs across Israel.

“We are part of the Hebrew University,” saysDr. Osnat Cohen, director of the division, “but not like other faculties or schools in the university that do research or provide academic degrees. What we do here is all kinds of outreach and we focus on scientific education to young people – teenagers and earlier. … We help kids who may not think they have an academic future to imagine one.”

Inside the building is a plaque recognizing the support of theCanadian Friends of the Hebrew University, including many names familiar to theVancouvercommunity. TheGary and Nanci Segal Innovative Outreach and Education Fundfunds students from the Hebrew University to travel to community centres and schools in small towns in the south, bringing scientific tools and delivering hands-on experiments and projects to some of the most socioeconomically challenged kids in the country. The students from southern Israel, who are supported by CFHU, also attend occasional intensive sessions at the Rehovot campus of the university.

The instructors, who are Hebrew University students pursuing PhDs, Master’s degrees or nearing completion of their undergraduate degrees, teach through hands-on experiments, reminding young people that learning can be interactive and exciting. In addition to providing a change from the sometimes rote learning of the high school experience, the Youth Division tries to encourage individualized, critical thinking, as well as teamwork, leadership and public speaking skills. The scientific learning is central to the program, but these additional social skills help build self-confidence, while the experience of learning from near-peer university students can help young people see themselves pursuing higher learning. For many of the kids, the programs are the first time they’ve visited a university campus or interacted with someone in higher education.

The Youth Division sometimes provides food, clothing and shoes, in addition to education. For families like these who are struggling to merely put food on the table, encouraging kids to imagine a future in a field like scientific research might seem like a faraway goal. Simply bringing the idea to the dinner table is one goal.

“Before Passover, we did an experiment … something with silver and chemicals and we explained the scientific background about oxidation and chemical changes,” Cohen says. The kids might then go home, see their mother polishing the silver in advance of the holiday and discuss what they learned about oxidation and chemistry.

“You put it into the atmosphere of talking about science,” she says.

The CFHU-supported program in southern Israel is just one of a huge range of formal and informal offerings from the division. There are programs aimed at every stratum of Israeli society, including girls and young women, who are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Education is delivered through science fairs, public lectures, seminars, conferences, on-campus tours and laboratories for lay people. Professional academic development for teachers provides enrichment in science and technology education. Summer camps in science are offered, alongside programs for gifted high school students. In all, the Youth Division engages about 80,000 young people a year.

The division has a dedicated residence, which allows students to stay for extended intensive study and, when communities are under siege, as towns near the Gaza Strip like Sderot are at times, the division provides respite programs where students come to campus and learn, away from falling rockets and air raid sirens.

The hope is that those who flow through these programs will eventually obtain (at least) a bachelor’s degree at the Hebrew University.

This is the longer version of an article that appeared inBetween Friends, CFHU’s Western Region Newsletter Winter 2018,and the full newsletter can be viewedby clicking here.