By Orli Gold-Haklay www.JPost.com
Hadas Tzaban, an 18-year-old high school student from the development town of Netivot, recently won first place in the international “First Step to Nobel Prize” research project competition held in Warsaw, Poland. To compete, high school students submit projects – in Hadas’s case her final matriculation project – which are then judged by professors of physics for originality and academic excellence.
Tzaban prepared her project as part of a special program for high school students interested in physics at the Ilan Ramon Youth Physics Center at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, under the supervision of Prof. Natan Kleeorin from the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Three other students from the center took second place in the competition. “Israel is just a tiny dot on the globe, but we are proving that we are a much bigger dot on the scientific map,” says center director Prof. Victor Melamed. “These talented kids are our future.”
The Ilan Ramon Youth Physics Center, on the Marcus Family Campus in Beersheba, was established in 2007 by the Rashi Foundation of Israel, collaborating with the Department of Physics to advance hands-on learning activities to high-school pupils from Kiryat Gat to Eilat. The center, named in honor of Israel’s first astronaut, who is originally from Beersheba, is located in the Sacta Rashi Physics Building and includes sophisticated teaching laboratories, a planetarium and rooftop observatory.
In addition to offering applied studies for all southern high-school pupils matriculating in physics, the center also assists pupils in preparing individual projects in physics, and identifies and advances those who are gifted. It aims to increase the number of pupils who take physics at a matriculation level and improve their matriculation results; establish and operate physics centers in schools; and ultimately increase the number of physics and engineering students in academic institutions, explains Melamed.
The fascination for physics runs in the Tzaban family: two years ago, Hadas’ older sister Mor, now 20, took second place for her research paper in the same competition. Originally from Tunisia, the Tzaban family is well known in Netivot. Hadas and Mor’s great grandfather, Rephael Hadir Tzaban, was the town’s head rabbi. Hadas’s father owns a printing press and her mother is a first-grade teacher.
“My parents have always encouraged us to pursue our interests, to work hard in school and excel,” says Hadas, one of five girls. “Natural sciences has always fascinated me and that’s why I joined the physics track at school. When I heard about the opportunity to conduct a research project at the Ramon Center, and I saw how much Mor enjoyed it, I jumped at the opportunity to broaden my horizons.”
Hadas began her research project on “Turbulent Convection in Sciences and Nature” in November of 2008 and completed it this past January. Although professors at the center as well as at the Weizman Institute in Rehovot had told her they were impressed with her work, she never expected to actually win the contest. “One day, I sat down at the computer to check my e-mails. When I read the announcement about the prize, I couldn’t believe it! I wasn’t sure I read it right, so I kept reading it again and again to make sure!”
As part of her prize, Hadas will be traveling to Warsaw, Poland, in November of this year to spend a month pursuing her research. Upon her return home, she will resume her national service, where she plans to help organize after-school activities for school children in Jerusalem’s Katamonim neighborhood – “not teaching them physics, just helping them and taking a ‘time-out’ before I pursue my studies.
“Physics just does it for me,” says Hadas, who hopes to either go to medical school or study at BGU’s Department of Physics. “To me, its just amazing, to see the theories of nature’s wonders come to life. The Ramon Center really makes you want to study. It lets kids get involved. If it wasn’t for the Center, I wouldn’t have done any research, and I never would have believed I could get this far.”
Hadas insists the physics gene isn’t hereditary, “and it isn’t something my mother puts in the food, either!” she says. But the facts speak for themselves: her younger sister, Chen, 16, will join the physics track at school and begin studying at the Ramon Center this fall.
The Ilan Ramon Center is the unique brainchild of the Rashi Foundation, driven by the realization that physics is the key to all advanced sciences. The foundation decided to create a center for youth to develop physics in the Negev and try to get more young people passionate about this area, says Melamed. “The Rashi Foundation does things very scientifically: first they targeted their objective; then they went full-force ahead to make sure it was accomplished.”
Melamed, a physics teacher with many years of experience in local Beersheba high schools, says that the sooner pupils are exposed to physics, the better. “Kids need to taste and smell science, and physics is the ultimate gateway to all sciences. I think anyone can get excited about science if he is exposed to it the right way. It’s hard to say which kids have a ‘natural tendency’ for physics, but there are definitely a lot of talented kids out there who are highly motivated. They have a natural curiosity that just needs to be cultivated, and at the center that’s what we do.”
The center is already yielding results. Over the past three years, there has been a phenomenal 25 percent increase in high school physics track pupils involved in the center, says Melamed, who attributes this dramatic leap to the center and its exciting activities: “Pupils at the center tell their peers what a great learning experience they’re having, and it makes more and more of them want to pursue this path.”