Realizing dreams, developments, and inventions; aid delegations and sports teams; contributing to society and the environment; using virtual reality technology to improve one’s English – the new academic experience includes activities and initiatives that change worlds, giving students vital skills for both the job market and life

What does developing a door-opening aid for people with disabilities have to do with a mobile lab that brings physics and material science to children in Israel’s periphery? What does planning and building greenhouses for Ukrainian refugees in Poland have to do with a solar-powered vehicle that spreads engineering over great distances?

These and more are the products of students from Afeka – the Academic College of Engineering in Tel Aviv, who’ve decided to contribute their free time to society and the environment, and incidentally to the realization of their own dreams, through incomparable hands-on experience and vital job market and life skills. And no, they didn’t do it for the credits.

“Afeka has redefined the image of the engineering alumnus and the skills they need to succeed in the job market,” said Adv. Keren Ben-Haim, director of Ofek – Skill Development Centers at Afeka. “To that end, we’ve dramatically reshaped the syllabus, incorporating skill-based learning products in the courses and adopting an innovative pedagogy. Still, an academic framework is rigid by nature. There are constraints such as the required academic level, teaching hours, credits, grades, and metrics that the institution is obliged to meet. Alongside the curriculum, an entire world arose of upgraded experiences and wonderful ideas that required resources, support, mentoring by the industry, and frameworks that go beyond the semester and even beyond the schoolyear. For these, we founded Ofek – Skills Development Centers.”

עו"ד קרן בן חיים צילום: דוד פרתי

The idea of organized, instituted activities to complement the curriculum and the student experience aligns perfectly with the Afeka Framework, which seeks to examine and redefine the desired image of an engineering alumnus. “Ofek is actually a platform for realizing dreams. We enable to develop skills by solving real-life problems. To do hands-on engineering and apply one’s academic knowledge even during one’s degree,” says Adv. Ben-Haim, herself a member of faculty, an economics lecturer in industrial engineering and management and until recently Dean of Students. “We don’t replace the curriculum, but supplement and empower it as part of a holistic educational process in and outside of the classroom.”

Ofek comprises four units. One of them is the student clubs founded by faculty members, students, or alumni in their fields of interest. For example: the Automotive Club, which has designed and built a solar-powered vehicle that was presented at the prestigious EcoMotion exhibition and is scheduled for a journey from Dan to Eilat, with stops in the periphery for demonstrations and explanation to children and educational institutions. Or the Aerospace Club, a regular participant in NASA’s hackathon; the FIRST mentors – alumni of the leading FIRST technology and science education program; the Arts and Engineering club, which creates recycling-based art installations; the Robotics Club, the Electricity Club, various sports teams, academic delegations to overseas events; a chapter of the ProWoman association; the WeWomen inter-generational female empowerment program; and Engineers Without Borders.

This last club bears elaborating. Afeka – The Academic College of Engineering in Tel Aviv is the only non-university institution in Israel to host a permanent chapter of Engineers Without Borders, an important international organization and the equivalent of Doctors Without Borders. This year, two delegations left Afeka for Poland, where the students built a playground from wood for refugee children as well as a greenhouse for growing vegetables in winter, in order to provide employment and reduce food costs. The idea isn’t just to “airdrop aid”[במקור כתוב נגעת-נסעת, שזה ביטוי בכלל לא קשור, גם בעברית], but to work with the community in instructing and developing a sense of self-efficacy while using engineering principles. And not just overseas: the “Making a Neighborhood” project has students from the Afeka chapter visiting socioeconomically deprived communities to create a central community space, such as a tabun oven for shared cooking in the garden – a project that required the students to learn and teach principles of physics, heat transfer, material durability, and more. Additionally, the chapter worked with rehabilitation institutions to upgrade their equipment, and more.

חברי מועדון הרכב הסולארי של אפקה.צילום: רונן טופלברג

Shooting Pool to Get Better at Geometry

Another unit at Ofek is the Center for the Promotion of Teaching, aimed at helping students by supporting the classroom learning experience, for example through courses and workshops – how to learn, how to manage time, and what constitutes a good answer in math. One need that arose from the student body was improving English skills, for which the Center allocated unique equipment and hardware, including VR glasses that simulate various situations that only the wearer can hear. Another tactic is to take a subject and “bring it down to earth” to make it more understandable and relatable – be it using the game of pool to improve geometry skills, or a fun day of physical measurements at an amusement park.

Ofek’s Social Engagement Unit coordinates the various science and engineering-oriented activities aimed at the society outside campus. Its flagship “Engineering Experience” project has middle school students visiting the campus to witness the beauty of science and technology professions, with assistance and guidance from Afeka students. The middle-schoolers take part in experiments, see what can be done at the material lab and the flow lab (wind tunnel), build and fly hobby airplanes, and learn how to operate an Arduino. All this in collaboration with municipalities and associations such as Think.Org.Il. In order to reach students who live remotely, Afeka has decided to send out specialized vehicles to townships in the Galilee and the Negev.

The fourth unit at Ofek is the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which enables faculty members, students, and alumni to promote ideas and bring them to maturity. This also serves as the home of the Afeka Rotary Club – Avivtek, which belongs to the international Rotary Organization, and seeks to help high tech entrepreneurs with mentoring, assistance in judging graduation projects, networking for alumni, entrepreneurial projects, and more. The Center’s ongoing activity takes place at the maker’s center, which allows any student at any given moment to start promoting an idea, and evaluate, try out, and manufacture it. Another activity, in collaboration with the Tikun Olam association, has to do with solving real problems. Recently, for example, a campus-wide call for submissions resulted in the building of a new custom-designed aid device for a wheelchair-bound woman with weak hands who has trouble opening doors. The center also initiates unique hackathons, e.g., with Magen David Adom or the Rimon School of Music – a competition that yielded a special glove for the deaf which transmits the singer’s vocal vibrations directly into the palm of the hand.

“Our job at Ofek is to take the ideas and dreams that don’t necessarily fit into the curriculum and make them a reality,” concludes Adv. Ben-Haim. “Thanks to the academic institution’s support – and it is far from trivial – for things that aren’t reflected in final grades, we are able to change worlds and send out the alumni with relevant added value, which is already paying off, will do so many times over, and delivers an enjoyable learning experience.”