JERUSALEM When 10 freshly graduated Moriah School students bounded to the stage at the Israel Arts and Science Academy here to accept a 5,000-shekel prize on July 9, it was truly the icing on a many-layered cake.
Layer 1 was the Englewood day school’s participation in Excellence ‘000 (E’K), a science enrichment program for seventh-graders developed by the Society for Excellence in Education, the organization that founded IASA in 1990 for gifted students.
Layer ‘ began taking shape last fall, when the society decided to clone its annual competition, Gildor Family Projects and Inventions, for the 58 American schools using E’K. Moriah science teacher Anastasia Kelly and math teacher Carol Iuzzolino flew to Israel in October to learn more about the project and meet its Israeli coordinators.
Moriah team members in Israel are, from left, top row, Kevin Wolf, Sarah Samuels, Jesse Silverman, Hannah Lebovics, Ariana Schanzer, and Leora Margelovich; bottom row: Rachel Rolnick, Elliot Eisenberg, Max Shulman, Eitan Neugut. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
Then they asked Moriah’s principal, Elliot Prager, if they could proceed with what promised to be an extremely time-consuming endeavor. The students from the prior year’s E’K group would be asked to engineer a model system for avoiding on-track collisions between road vehicles and trains. They would be expected to solicit ideas and hands-on expertise from their greater community. They’d have to develop a companion slide show and poster to explain their approach.
The answer was swift and enthusiastic. "Dr. Prager went out on a limb for this project," said Iuzzolino. "He has been incredibly supportive. He never once said, ‘Are you sure?’ even though he realized this was a huge commitment."
A judge measures the track as Kevin Wolf and Linda Goldberg look on. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
"This is light years away from a typical science fair project," said Prager, who introduced E’K to the school two years ago. He has begun incorporating its emphasis on "out-of-the-box" thinking and collaboration into all of Moriah’s math and science classes.
As the students’ "what-if" ideas started taking shape, Iuzzolino began bouncing them off her husband, Mike, a retired electrician with Local 3 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in New York. He soon became the project’s chief engineer.
In January, every school submitted a written proposal, and 36 were selected to take part. Each team was paired with an Israeli one, in order to trade thoughts and advice via e-mail.
"In the process, we each learned what our strengths are in math and science," said Leora Margelovich of Teaneck. "We contacted the Columbia School of Engineering, Stevens Institute of Technology, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology to find out if our ideas were feasible and, if not, whether they had other ideas."
With the veteran electrician urging them to keep the project simple, the kids finally settled on a game plan. "We made a system that uses pressure sensors to protect the car and cut power to the train in order to stop it, with a ‘pusher’ car the emergency removal vehicle to remove the car from the tracks," explained Hannah Lebovics of Englewood. "Once the car is removed safely, the train goes back to normal."
Mike Iuzzolino set about procuring parts at model-train shops and on the Internet. Each Tuesday he came to school to guide the project.
"I was able to teach the kids about circuits, and how a switch controls the circuit, and how a relay is nothing more than a switch that controls multiple circuits," he said. "It took time, but they really got it. Although building on this scale is something they weren’t really able to do [on their own], they do understand how everything works and were absolutely instrumental in the design of the system."
Then came Layer 3: In May, Moriah was chosen to go to the semifinals in Queens, where the same panel evaluating the Israeli schools’ projects came to judge theirs. One team would be offered the chance to bring its project to the Israeli competition later on.
"We were looking for a school that we felt would be able to handle this type of competition and do a really good job," said Linda Goldberg, math and science coordinator for Gruss Life Monument Fund, which sponsors E’K from the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education in Manhattan.
Layer 4 was next. "We decided that Moriah would best help us see how this would work for diaspora schools," Goldberg said. "There will always be issues that come up when you’re participating in a contest from 6,000 miles away."
Kelly said that when the invitation to Israel arrived, "school was already over, and the kids had already graduated. But they all came back to work on their final presentation."
Mike Iuzzolino built a crate in which to ship the components. Prager urged the school’s board to help finance the trip, which was partially subsidized by Gruss.
"My pitch to the leadership of the board was that this is not just about 10 kids who are very gifted," said Prager. "We wanted them to go to Israel to compete, but this whole approach to learning has long-range educational implications for the entire school. I look at it as just the beginning of a revolution in learning for Moriah."
And that is how Prager, Kelly, and both Iuzzolinos found themselves in Israel along with all 10 kids. In addition to Margelovich and Lebovics, the team included Englewood residents Ariana Schanzer, Max Shulman, and Sarah Samuels; Teaneck residents Elliott Eisenberg, Eitan Neugut, Rachel Rolnick, and Jesse Silverman; and Kevin Wolf of Bergenfield.
For a few tense days, it looked as if the preparations had been in vain. Various difficulties delayed the arrival of the project from America, and then problems with a voltage transformer sent Iuzzolino to a hardware store to find alternative components.
"It was a cliffhanger," admitted Prager. "We thought we’d have to pull the plug on the whole project."
In the meantime, the Moriah kids spent a day with the team from their sister school, ORT Ofek in Kiryat Bialik. "At first our kids started speaking in English and I kept pressing them to speak in Hebrew," said Prager. "By the time they got on the bus together to go to the science museum in Haifa, they were really speaking with each other in Hebrew. This is a phenomenal pilot for integrating Hebrew and for building a relationship in math and science with schools in Israel."
The day of the competition, the Moriah team took time from setting up their presentation to take a look at the other teams’ systems. All the schools which included a Baptist school, a Druse school, Arab schools, and religious and non-religious Jewish schools had built on ideas the Englewood students had considered, but none had used pressure sensors.
Five pairs of judges scrutinized each aspect of the project and asked the teens detailed questions before assigning points. "We had to meet the same criteria as the 10 Israeli finalist schools," said Carol Iuzzolino. "We couldn’t knock anybody out from the Israeli schools, but we could tie with one of them."
While the judges mulled their decision, the Moriah and ORT Ofek teams sat on the gym floor together singing Hebrew songs one of many scenes that Prager said brought tears to his eyes that day.
He, Kevin, and Rachel addressed the assemblage before the announcement of winners, and Moriah was lauded by IASA’s principal for "turning a national competition into an international competition." When it was announced that Moriah had tied for third place, the team gleefully clambered to the stage.
Goldberg, one of several Gruss Fund officials to accompany the group, said she was amazed at the result. "These kids are a whole grade younger than the other teams," she said. "We were told that it’s extraordinarily rare for a first-year participating school to make it to the finals, let alone win a prize. Yet these students did it."
Prager said, "The key to education today is not how much knowledge the students amass but to what degree they’re able to use their imagination and creativity in approaching knowledge, in understanding how to think, learn, and explore."