Over the past two years, Netivot has become a robotics powerhouse. Boys and girls from this southern town, once considered poor and backwards, are winning international competitions for their science projects, and Netivot is now involved in a special pilot project that has first, second and third graders building their own mini-robots.

On Wednesday, Netivot hosted a robotics festival sponsored by the international organization FIRST - For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology - in which about 120 schoolchildren, most of them from Netivot, showcased their work. "We are active in several places around the world and in several age groups," said the Israel director of FIRST, Yaarit Levy.

The pilot project in Netivot was launched at the start of November with first, second and third graders from Noam Eliyahu, a state religious school, participating. Once a week, they come to the municipal science center where they spend an intensive eight hours studying science and robotics.

"Robotics is the best tool for stimulating interest in technology among teens and children," said Avihu Ben Nun, former commander of the air force and the organization's chairman in Israel. "Our goal is to get young people to take an interest, acquire confidence and pursue engineering studies, something very much needed in the country at the moment."

The value of discovery

Mayor Yehiel Zohar supports the program with funding and other municipal resources. "The Netivot municipality attaches great importance to nurturing the sciences," he said, "and this project will help strengthen our students and nurture the values of invention, discovery and scientific thinking, turning our educational system into a leader in this area."

For two years now, a project on a more limited scale has been under way in Netivot. It began during the time of the war in the Gaza Strip."In the coming year, about 200 elementary school children will study the fundamentals of robotics in Netivot, as well as another 80 junior high students," said Assaf Menuhin, director of the municipal science center. "Robotics gives these students a basis for studying science and engineering. They develop their scientific thinking, learn to deal with challenges and develop skills in teamwork and problem-solving."

The goal, according to Menuhim, is that "every child who completes elementary school in Netivot will have studied the fundamentals of robotics." This has been made possible, he said, thanks to support from the Lehava Center (a government agency whose mission is to narrow the digital divide in Israel ), the Ilan Ramon Center at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Partnership 2000 and the Netivot municipality, which has spearheaded the initiative.

The robotics festival was preceded by weekly meetings at the Lehava Center in Netivot, where participants split up into groups and each group built a model of a medical device from Lego components. The objective was to build a model with at least one component that could be manipulated, either by hand or by computer. The participants designed posters which depicted the work process, listed the names of the group members and provided information about the model and its inventors.

A phone for the blind and deaf

This was not a competitive event, as each group received a certificate and all the children were awarded a medal for participating. Judges circulated among the groups, examining the models and listening to explanations.

Noa Cohen Orlov, the director of Lehava in Netivot, said she believed the project "is taking the town of Netivot forward into a technological and scientific future." One of the group instructors, Rachel Miller, added: "The children who came here didn't know what biomedical engineering was. Today they are able to explain what they built and why. This is a very significant."

According to Aryeh Arad, head of the Netivot education administration, "Students usually flee physics studies because it's difficult. We take them on field trips to high-tech companies and science museums, and we encourage them to go into the scientific fields. Robotic is part of this."

The group in which third-graders Roni Itzhak and Ilai Miara participated built a "telekashish" - a vibrating, flashing and beeping phone, designed specifically for elderly people who suffer from blindness and deafness. "We had to find an idea for a project and we decided to help old people," explained Ilai.

Eight-year-old Roni said she's been working on the project for two years "and it's lots of fun."

Ilai's mother, Inbal Miara, said the project has been a blessing for her as well. "This project is making us, the parents, proud of the children in Netivot, who are learning the fundamentals of robotics at such an early age. We want the project to get them engaged in the sciences in the future."

Roni's father, Natan Itzhak, added: "I fought for my daughter to be able to get in. She comes home each time with new discoveries in robotics, and I learn from them, too."