The first time Raeann Silassy experienced Chanukah, she lit a menorah with the mayor of Haifa. To follow that up, she kindled candles with the president of Israel.
“It was an interesting experience because I had never celebrated Chanukah before; it was really cool,” the teenager said.
Though Silassy’s recent visit to Israel coincided with the Festival of Lights, her time abroad was to spark separate interests, said Tsipy Gur, founder and executive director of Classrooms Without Borders.
Silassy, a 12th-grader at Fort Cherry Junior/Senior High School in McDonald, Pa., was one of 60 students from 12 countries to participate in Technion International’s first annual Haifa Teen Tech Challenge.
The experience boasted two successive weeks in Israel, as the first was spent touring and the second was devoted to working with scientists and researchers on an innovative and juried project.
Both weeks provide benefit, said Teen Tech founder and director Liora Kalish. “We see this as an opportunity to bring youth from all over the world together. These teenagers who are coming here, I believe will be our best ambassadors. They toured Israel, met with Israeli youth, with the president, with innovators, and many of them had no idea what Israel is all about.
“They watch the news and see what each station wants to show, especially when there is a terrorist attack or problems, and all of a sudden they encounter a modern vibrant country and city. And that’s what I want people to know, that we are open and want to share our knowledge with everybody, and we are delighted that so many countries decided to join.”
Despite the various backgrounds and personalities of participants, melding together was rather easy, said Silassy.
After sharing particular interests, the teens were divided into groups and then strategized alongside supervisors from IBM, Intel and Technion on possible projects.
Silassy’s cohort, which consisted of kids from Argentina, Australia, Israel and Mexico, designed a pedal-powered cellphone charger. The idea was that it would encourage health and fitness while providing a necessary function, she explained.
The winning team, which was comprised of Israeli Druze and Chinese teenagers, created a “special device that you can put on a person’s finger, even a child’s, when they go swimming, and it transmits different scientific details to an app.” If the wearer experiences distress, the app then alerts those outside of the swimming area that a situation is arising. “It gives you enough time to act,” said Kalish.
“It was so amazing to see what these kids were able to create,” said Gur.
The fact that they could collaborate, design and implement new ideas despite linguistic and cultural barriers was not surprising. “I believe that [STEM] is really the language that young people speak; they are very interested in science and technology, especially technology,” said Kalish.
It is what drew Silassy to the project, said Trisha Craig, junior high principal at Fort Cherry.
After receiving information about the program from her Fort Cherry administrator, Silassy immediately applied.
She is “an excellent student and a very sweet girl. She’s involved in a number of different activities at school, including our Society for Women in Engineering chapter and our agricultural science program,” said Craig. For her to “take those learning experiences and expand them while overseas is awesome.”
Silassy, who marked this trip as her first time abroad, agreed.
“I learned a lot while I was there,” she said. “It was amazing. I kind of got culture shock when I first got there. It was different from Pittsburgh: the weather, the time difference and being so far away from home. It was a whole different experience.”
But Silassy, who visited the Dead Sea and Masada, observed three bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall and enjoyed a Shabbat meal complete with home-cooked food, quickly adjusted to her new surroundings.
“I didn’t expect it to be that amazing,” she said. “It’s a beautiful country. I think everyone should go.”
Such is one of the goals, said Kalish. “I see it is as a bridge between us and everybody. [Teen Tech is] an opportunity to meet the country and its people.”
And while Silassy spoke highly of her Israeli hosts, who treated her “like royalty,” one individual stood out. As she and the other teenagers collaborated on their innovative endeavors, they were introduced to an individual with a knack for inventiveness.
When Avram Hershko, a Nobel Laureate in chemistry, “talked to us, he said how proud he is of us to be the next startup nation and how he would have jumped on this opportunity if he were in our shoes, that we will change the world. It was awesome hearing that from him,” she said.
“Being 17 years old, I wasn’t expecting to hear that I am going to change the world. I didn’t think that just by being there and doing what I am passionate about is going to change the world,” she continued.
Hearing that message, along with enjoying the other experiences that Teen Tech provided, was what drove Classrooms Without Borders, an organization that traditionally provides professional development for teachers, to aid Silassy’s trip.
“We thought it was important,” said Gur.
“Just the opportunity to travel, the opportunity of working with other students from around the globe is tremendous,” said Craig. “If I could have gone, I would have gone as a student, just for the focus on technology and the different aspects of STEM and being able to share your own experiences in your community with those students from communities around the world.
“In this day, it’s so important that people learn about individual differences so we learn to respect them. It’s imperative, especially with everything going on in the world.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewish