Startup Nation Without Physics Teachers

Their extinction isn't on the radar, but it will destroy our high-tech industry.

Everybody and his dog knows that Israel is a high-tech superpower. We have the greatest number of technology companies on Nasdaq, after Canada (and the United States, of course ). A host of multinationals at the forefront of technology maintain research and development centers in Israel, including the likes of Intel, Google, Hewlett Packard, Motorola and Cisco Systems. Israelis are nifty inventors, gritty and hungry. Giant companies have paid billions over the years for Israeli startups.

It's a great story. We tell it to ourselves every day and it's even told elsewhere in the world from time to time. In the past year, Dan Senor and Saul Singer did terrific work for Israeli public relations in their book, "Startup Nation," marketing to Americans the story that they should learn from us how to succeed in innovation.

Physics lab

Not only Americans whip off their hats before us: A presentation by Lithuanian prime minister Andrius Kubilius, who visited Israel last week, had a slide stating that his favorite book is "Startup Nation." One can understand Kubilius and the other people applauding. The story of Israel, a tiny nation surrounded by enemies that nonetheless breeds thousands of technology startups, is captivating.

But there's another story that, happily for us, isn't widely told around the world, and unhappily for us, isn't told here either. It needs to be. Like Startup Nation, it is also backed by clear, cutting numbers that were showcased again last quarter, when the OECD published the results of its PISA tests for 2009. Those are international tests that gauge literacy among school children, testing their skill in reading comprehension, mathematics and sciences.

For a decade Israel has ranked very low. Its status picked up a little in recent years but it remained at the bottom of the list of developed nations. The marks achieved by Israeli students are so astonishingly low, compared with the image we have of ourselves and the image others have of us, that we simply don't internalize the truth. It can't be. Us, backward? No way.

The only ones not taken aback by the statistics are experienced people in teaching, in high-tech, in the army, who have felt the erosion in the quality of human capital leaving Israel's schools.

Don't know what a slide rule is for

Israelis are astonished to learn how badly their children do on science tests. We are the People of the Book! Some simply shrug off the figures, saying they must be wrong, or dismiss the importance of science studies to the State of Israel's future development. Both are unhelpful attitudes.

But the low grades Israeli pupils get on international science tests shouldn't surprise us. Here are some enlightening statistics about the Israeli education system that don't come from the people of the OECD. They come from Israeli teachers, and were confirmed by the Education Ministry. It's dull stuff, such as physics lessons, but hang in there, dear reader.

Each age group in Israel's schools has about 120,000 pupils. How many physics teachers are there for them? There are 850 physics teachers. What characterizes these physics teachers? Most are relatively aged. Their average age has risen to 50 in the last 10 years. How many younger physics teachers are there in Israel? A few dozen, maybe less.

Avi Golan is head of the students unit at the Davidson Institute of Science Education at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Until two years ago he headed the Branco Weiss school in Beit Shemesh, and in his past, taught science and mathematics at high schools in Tel Aviv and Or Yehuda. Golan estimates that based on the retirement rate of physics teachers and the replacement rate of younger ones, in five years Israel will have fewer than 500 physics teachers. Twenty five years ago, when Israel's population was 40% smaller (just 4.3 million ), there were about 1,000 physics teachers.

Why should we care about the extinction of the physics teacher in Israel? We are the Startup Nation, aren't we? At least we say we are.

The answer is simple. With all due respect to software programming and the Internet, the most important foundation for most sciences is physics. "The main reason to study physics in high school is that it's the introduction to most of the scientific and engineering professions," says Golan. "Nobody can be a great electronics engineer or top-tier materials engineer if they don't have solid grounding in physics." They need to learn to think like physicists, he explains.

Unlike in the humanities, science is constructed hierarchically, one brick of knowledge at a time. "You can't take shortcuts," Golan explains. "You can't have missing pieces without causing real damage to training. Physics is the foundation of everything."

You can't engage in biomedicine, or solar energy or liquid crystallography without it. And that's just a random list of the vast range of sciences and technologies you can't succeed in without thoroughly understanding physics, he says.

The biggest area at the Weizmann Institute is biology - but a deeper look finds the place abounds with physicists too, and for good reason. The fact that Israel's high-tech industry and its management need physicists with higher degrees, MScs and PhDs, is another matter entirely, Golan adds.

Before we continue with his opinion on the importance of studying physics, we must disclose something. Golan is no academic isolated in his ivory tower, or living in blissful detachment from the economic scene. He has spent most of his adult years working at a range of jobs at Intel's R&D centers in Haifa, Santa Clara, California, and in Oregon, as well as at Intel's fabs in Jerusalem, Kiryat Gat and Arizona. He began as a young engineer, when Intel built its facility in Jerusalem in 1983. In 2002 he left Intel. His last position was manager of engineering at the Kiryat Gat foundry.

Golan holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and physical electronics from Tel Aviv University, a BSc in materials science from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and a BSc in chemistry from Tel Aviv University. He also graduated from the Mandel Leadership Institute, which specializes in educational leadership. (You'd be surprised how many of the best people in the education system, local government and the public service in general have passed through Mandel. )

I asked Golan if he thinks Israel can sustain and develop its high-tech sector over the next 20 years without physics teachers in schools, not to mention a higher proportion of advanced physics graduates of all levels compared with the countries with which we compete.

An existential need

"No." Clear and simple. "Israel doesn't have the privilege that the United States has, to attract professionals who received their education elsewhere. We are utterly dependent on what our own education system produces. The Davidson Institute of Science Education isn't a project for the benefit of the Weizmann Institute. It's an existential need of the State of Israel."

The idea that the Internet, social networks and all those superstar startups that attract all the media attention would replace basic technologies that rely on physicists is ludicrous, he explains. "The idea that micro-electronics will disappear like Israeli orange cultivation is intellectually amusing. But I think advanced industry without physics is unrealistic. I don't see Israeli software giants replacing Intel, Applied Materials, El-Op and Indigo."

I asked engineer Zohar Zisapel, co-father of the sprawling RAD group of technology companies, how he thinks the Israeli high-tech scene would look if Israelis don't learn physics in high school. "It's in high school that physics is the most critical," he answered. "That is the foundation on which later studies in electronics, software, computer sciences and other engineering subjects are based."

It matters more than physics in university, in his opinion - there the topics most crucial to the high-tech industry are electronics, software, biology and medicine.

Senor and Singer don't mention the state of physics education in their exciting book. In fact the topic isn't on anybody's radar. The Education Ministry told us that the Science and Technology Administration has a strategic plan to strengthen science knowledge and skills among all of Israel's schoolchildren, and that the plan includes locating pupils with unrealized potential in the social and geographic periphery. The ministry didn't mention whether the plan has quantitative goals over time.

People who majored in physics in high school during the 1960s to 1980s surely remember the textbook by Sears and Zemansky, written with an awkwardness that became all the more bizarre as time wore on. One of its more amusing phrases was the "wonder-person" who could do "wonderful things" to gain a grasp of physical phenomena.

But despite the story we sell to ourselves and others, there are no wonders in Israel's education system, or in its high-tech industry, or in the state of our competitiveness. If we don't have physicists, if our students lag behind their peers in the West and East, the social and economic implications could be horrendous.