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Going for the Gold

Barbara Bensoussan

National attention was drawn to Yeshiva Ketana of Long Island this summer, when it won the honor of having its student-designed, zero-gravity experiment loaded onto NASA’S final Atlantis space shuttle flight. But is by no means the only yeshivah to distinguish itself by winning a science competition. As US educators wring their hands over the country’s declining math and science scores, many yeshivah students are applying their Torah-sharpened seichel to the challenges of science contests.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The last voyage of Atlantis this past July made headlines all over the world. How did a small yeshivah in Inwood finagle getting their school science project included on board?

“It was a lot about being in the right place at the right time to find out about the competition,” says Stew Greenberg, the parent of one of the fifth-graders involved in the project, as well as the yeshivah’s IT director. “The SSEP — Student Spaceflight Experiments Program — was formed by NASA and scientists across the country as a means of reinvigorating science education in America, which they feared was getting worse and worse.”

Greenberg, a computer consultant in the health care industry, frequently attends educational technology conferences. Through this grapevine, he heard about the SSEP competition, which was calling for proposals for experiments in zero gravity that would be judged on relevance, practicality, and originality.

“My son claimed not to like science, but he loves hands-on stuff like the Hall of Science in Queens,” Greenberg says. “He ended up being one of the first to sign up.”

The bar just to enter was astoundingly high. First of all, Greenberg says, they had to plow through a 150-page document specifying contest rules, permissible materials, and so forth. Then there was the price: a cool $20,000 if the project was accepted.

“You have to realize that every piece of research NASA does is funded,” Mr. Greenberg explains. “The average public school wasn’t able to provide that kind of funding — not that a yeshivah could either. So we had to get creative.”

In the end, balabatim from the yeshivah who had connections in the Jewish, nonreligious science world came through, hitting pay dirt with a Five Towns man who had become wealthy via patents for laser surgery equipment.

“He got excited by the idea of little boys with tzitzis and yarmulkes working on a science project for the space shuttle,” he says. “He gave us $10,000 on the spot. There was also a mechanical engineer who gave a substantial contribution.”

Donations from the Gruss Foundation — which provided the yeshivah with SMART Boards (interactive whiteboards that use touch detection, like a mouse-pad), computer labs, and science labs — also helped turn the project into a reality.

The yeshivah hired a curriculum specialist and educator with an MS in science, who had learned at Yeshivas Sh’or Yoshuv. “We began with ‘thinking sessions,’ ” Mr. Greenberg says. “The idea had to come from the boys themselves, and we needed to make them think about zero-gravity environments.”

Eighteen boys from the sixth and seventh grades volunteered, spending hours after school and on Sundays to develop the project. The hard work was sweetened with regular provisioning of pizza and donuts.

“The enthusiasm was infectious,” Greenberg says. “Some of the boys who didn’t participate began to feel disappointed when they saw how cool this was. So we went back to our benefactor, who helped us bring the entire fifth through seventh grades into the experiments. We used other kids who hadn’t gotten involved to help design the school’s own ‘mission patch.’ ”

The boys proposed three ideas to NASA. One, which received an honorable mention, involved earthworm regeneration in zero gravity. But the idea that ultimately won had to do with the crystallization of zinc molecules in liquid in a zero-gravity environment, and whether or not a stronger chemical bond would be formed. Mr. Greenberg explains that the experiment is of scientific interest for several reasons. Zinc phosphate is a common element in dental cement, and stronger crystals make tougher cement. Zinc phosphate is also used as a rust and corrosion inhibitor when bonded to metal instruments, a useful feature in space shuttles, where the air is moist and there’s a lot of condensation.

The rigors of the yearlong experience helped the boys mature in many ways: learning to deal with deadlines, to write the proposals, and to redo them. They had to work smoothly as a team, with other boys who may not have initially been their best friends. They also learned that persistence pays.

“Scientific experimentation is like golf,” Greenberg says. “There’s always that one shot that keeps you coming back for more, even if a lot of it is boring.”

By now the space shuttle has already returned, and with it the finished experiment. A physicist with access to an electron microscope has been recruited to analyze the results. As for the boys, these young rocket scientists have been invited to fly to Washington DC to present the conclusions in the Main Hall of the Smithsonian Institute.


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