Ofanim | Driving STEM Education in Israel

Children throughout Israel’s social and geographic periphery are discovering the joys of science and technology thanks to Ofanim’s innovative mobile classrooms – buses converted into labs that are staffed by highly motivated educators

Rebecca Kopans
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Children in front of the Ofanim bus
Children in front of the Ofanim bus in which they learn about science and technologyCredit: Ofanim
Rebecca Kopans
Promoted Content

The difference between the educational opportunities available to children in Israel’s urban strongholds and those in its peripheral regions is not so much a gap as a schism. Despite decades-long efforts to overcome this reality, the narrative of disparity prevails and children growing up in a less privileged environment still face enormous challenges.

Ofanim is a gamechanger for many of these children. By sparking their curiosity about science and technology, Ofanim is determined to break the paradigm whereby children growing up in weaker areas are less likely to graduate from high school with high-level matriculation exams, less likely to enlist in the IDF’s elite tech units, less likely to pursue higher education and, as a result, much less likely to be part of Israel’s thriving high-tech ecosystem. Ofanim introduces them to the world of science, medicine and technology at a young age and encourages them to become achievers.

Devoted to empowering children

Ofanim is the brainchild of Dr. Haim Dahan, who is determined to ignite the imagination of children in Israel’s peripheral districts just as a fateful encounter with a professor made a huge impact on his life when he was a child. Indeed, while growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood of Beer Sheva, Dahan met Prof. Bergman, a renowned computer science professor from Ben-Gurion University, who invited him to visit his computer lab. Enthralled, young Haim visited the lab six times, and these visits were what inspired him to eventually pursue BA, MA and PhD degrees in computer science and to build a successful software company.

A young girl enraptured by a science experiment in an Ofanim busCredit: Ofanim

Dahan had an innovative idea: to convert a bus into a mobile classroom with advanced technological equipment and to bring that bus to children in Israel’s underserved periphery. The first mobile lab was inaugurated in 2004 and served 60 children with after-school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) enrichment programs. The initiative grew rapidly as demand for its activities surged. Today, Ofanim operates nine state-of-the-art buses that have been converted into labs and serve 63 communities throughout Israel, reaching more than 4,000 third to seventh graders every week. Each mobile lab is staffed by carefully chosen and highly trained university students who are just as passionate about science and technology as they are devoted to empowering children. They serve as role models for the young participants.

Ofanim’s buses offer an exciting world of hands-on activities and experiments in such fields as physics, coding, robotics, computerized animation, 3D printing, gaming, bio-medicine and more. For many children, this is their first exposure to practical science and technology enrichment activities. Through these experiences, the NGO promotes equal educational opportunity, while embracing diversity across all social, ethnic and religious sectors of Israel’s population.

In his book “Touches of Grace,” Dr. Haim Dahan describes how his life was transformed as a child and how his desire to help other children enjoy similar experiences led him to founding Ofanim. Today, his innovative model is being implemented in other countries as well. “At Ofanim, we inspire Israeli at-risk youth to hope, to dream and to understand what is possible. We are a social and educational trailblazer and we are now exporting our model globally,” he observes proudly.

“They exposed me to new great worlds”

Studies prove that it is crucial to begin science literacy in elementary school, and to learn skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, curiosity and self-learning at a young age. Ofanim’s activities are designed to foster these skills. The lesson plans are prepared in collaboration with academic institutions and the children enjoy a structured weekly program throughout the school year. Occasionally, there are also special activities at universities, science museums and visitor centers.

Ofanim's programming opens up new, exciting worlds to children in Israel's periphery.Credit: Ofanim

Surveys show that around 90% of kids who participate in Ofanim programs enjoy the activities a great deal and would like to continue next year. 75% report that Ofanim’s activities will help them in the future and that they have developed new areas of interest. Remarkably, 23.5% of Ofanim graduates take the highest level Math matriculation in high school, compared to an average of 8.2% in Northern Israel and 6.9% in Southern Israel, and 58% plan to pursue careers in science or technology.

“Ofanim had the answers for all my curiosity. They exposed me to new great worlds and had a major contribution to the path I took. They led me to academia and I can clearly say that Ofanim raised my self-esteem. This experience enabled me to secure my social status and built me as a young social leader,” says Dotan, a graduate of the program. “I feel that all the techniques and methods that I learned at Ofanim, even the experience of being on a bus which is not like a regular program in a classroom, helped develop my creativity and that is expressed in my studies,” adds Moriah Dadon of Kfar Maimon, a religious village in southern Israel.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Ofanim quickly found new creative ways to continue working with the children in its programs. A hybrid learning experience was rapidly devised and introduced, involving remote lessons, new training for the instructors and the development of a home STEM kit that was distributed to all participants in order to keep them engaged.

Ofanim’s groundbreaking programming has not gone unnoticed. In 2009, Ofanim received the Minister of Social Affairs’ award for an outstanding nonprofit organization, and in 2011 it received the Midot Seal of Effectiveness for its success in creating social value and generating a positive change in the lives of its beneficiaries. Moreover, in 2011 Dr. Dahan was awarded the Effective Contributor Citation for his contribution to advancing the children of Israel’s periphery.

In 2019, Ofanim was chosen by the Ministry of Education to lead a national STEM program for informal education in periphery schools. Following the success of the pilot program, Ofanim was asked to expand the program to include 12 municipalities. Last year, Ofamin received another important honor when it was awarded “Special Consultation Status” by the United Nations Social and Economic Council.

Friends of Ofanim

In 2005, a group of Americans led by businessman and philanthropist Paul Silberberg founded Friends of Ofanim, the philanthropic arm in the United States for Ofanim in Israel. Despite the fact that Ofanim is a relatively small Israeli NGO, Friends of Ofanim, led by Executive Director Boaz Ozery, is remarkably active in the U.S. and boasts a strong, involved Board. Its current co-Presidents are Paul Silberberg, author of “The Ethical Entrepreneur: Succeeding in Business without Selling Your Soul,” and Angelica Berrie, President of the Russell Berrie Foundation.

Friends of Ofanim works to increase awareness of this award-winning organization and to expand its network of dedicated supporters who believe in the power of STEM education to transform individual lives and Israel’s economic and social resilience. In addition to working strategically with Ofanim on program design and development, Friends of Ofanim organizes missions to see first-hand the power of Ofanim’s work, and arranges site visits in the Negev and the Galilee to meet the children and dedicated instructors.

“How can children succeed if they don’t have access to quality education? Ofanim brings STEM education directly to children from low-income communities in Israel. We want to make sure that every child has the opportunity to achieve” says Friends of Ofanim co-President Angelica Berrie. “Ofanim creates equal opportunity; enriching students’ lives while helping to overcome Israel's critical shortage of engineers. Early STEM intervention is key to securing a safe and prosperous future for Israel,” affirms co-President Paul Silberberg.

For more information about Ofanim,visit: www.friendsofofanim.org or contact 610-304-8032, boaz@friendsofofanim.org