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From left, standing, Noam Weinberger, Chaya Levin, Liat Clark, Ahuva Shafier, Devorah Saffern, Tova Sklar and Sarah Weinberg. Kira Paley, left, and Sarah Hiller are seated.

Often the simplest solution is the best.

And so it was that a team from Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck took first prize in a competition to engineer a system for avoiding collisions on railroad tracks.

“I think we won because ours was the most practical – maybe not the most complex solution, but it got the job done,” said Devorah Saffern of Bergenfield, one of the eight sophomores involved in the project.

“Ours was really simple, economical, and practical, and could be applied in reality,” Chaya Levin of Teaneck added.

Organized by the Israel Center for Excellence through Education, the Gildor Projects and Inventions Competition is designed to foster initiative in top-level high school students, along with problem-solving skills and scientific and mathematical thinking. Students use skills they acquired in the program to design and build an original invention to solve a practical problem.

This year’s challenge to seven participating New York-area schools (including the Frisch School in Paramus) was to design a “smart” system of automated elements and electronic sensors to prevent train/vehicle collisions. Students began with a general course on creating a science project. They were free to adopt their own approaches or ask the class teacher and outside professionals for guidance.

The Ma’ayanot team – Liat Clark, Devorah Saffern, and Tova Sklar of Bergenfield, Sarah Hiller of Fair Lawn, and Sarah Weinberg, Kira Paley, Chaya Levin, and Ahuva Shafier of Teaneck – used photo-sensors to detect the car and train, electromagnets to stop the train, and rubber rollers to move the car to safety.

They worked under the guidance of teacher Noam Weinberger in his science research elective course. Weinberger will accompany the team to Israel at the end of June to present the project in a wider competition that includes Israeli high schools.

“My job was to take student ideas and point out areas to consider further,” Weinberger said. “Then, once they settled on a solution, I got whatever supplies they needed and I supervised their work. My role was not to come up with any solutions, but to help the students learn how to implement their own ideas.”

He said it was a learning experience in hands-on electrical engineering for himself as well.

He had several goals in mind for the students, he said.

“Mainly, I wanted them to learn new scientific topics and get a better idea of how engineering works and how to research and apply ideas, with an open-minded approach.”

Ma’ayanot’s principal, Rivka Kahan, said that this was the second year that Ma’ayanot has entered the contest, which took place at the Yeshiva of Central Queens.

“This honor reflects the students’ intellectual creativity and the many hours of dedicated hard work that they devoted to their invention,” she said. “They are the first team from a girls’ school to have advanced to this level of the Gildor Competition, and we are filled with pride in their work and scientific achievement.”

The eight students worked in pairs on different aspects of their invention: the computer programming, the sensors, the car removal system, and the mechanism for stopping the trains.

“I was in the sensors group,” Sarah Weinberg said. “At the beginning, our teacher taught us about electricity and how to make and read schematics, and then we had to research different types of sensors.”

Weinberger suggested that they make their own.

“We decided on photo-electric instead of a vibration or motion sensor because it seemed the easiest for us to find parts to build it, and also it would work for anything on the tracks – even a deer,” said Weinberg. “We didn’t know how to build it, so we just kept trying until it worked.”

Kira Paley created the PowerPoint show that the girls used to present their system to the other schools. She also learned a bit about computer programming and how to handle the drills and saws needed to cut the tracks and secure them to wooden boards.

“The goal is to remove a car stuck on the tracks, and also stop the train,” Paley said. “We used electromagnets that would only turn on when there is a car on the tracks. They attract the train to stop. To remove a car, individual rollers become automated when the sensor senses the car on the tracks. It was all controlled by computer.”

Chaya Levin said that her job was to program the computer to control the entire system, taking into account different possible scenarios. “I had help from our coach and I read up a lot about it,” she said. “I learned a lot more about how computer programming works and how it really controls things.”

The North American involvement in the Gildor competition was sponsored by the Gruss Foundation, working with the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education. For the last two years, CIJE has been equipping Jewish high schools in the New York area – including all of those in North Jersey – to better prepare students to compete in the global marketplace, specifically in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math.