This is a story about an unusual community of children who love math and communicate with one another and with Weizmann Institute mathematicians by mail. This community is centered on Young@Science – the Weizmann Institute’s youth section, which has branches in several countries. “Math is fun, it’s interesting, entertaining, challenging,” says Dr. Netta Maoz who, together with Dr. Moshe Rishpon, established the community in the 1980s. “And we thought it could be a wonderful recreational activity.”
In the beginning, questionnaires created by Weizmann Institute students, encompassing a wide variety of recreational math problems, were sent by mail to youngsters across Israel, who mailed their solutions back to the Institute. Explanations and corrections were dispatched in response, along with new worksheets. Originally intended for fourth- to ninth-graders, the program’s age range was later expanded. It was so successful that outstanding students were invited to the Institute, where they were presented with a mathematical sleuthing challenge designed by Dr. Amnon Zakov, which called upon them to explore the Institute grounds searching for clues. The modest reward to those finding the right solution: a popsicle.
The story continues: Dr. Yossi Elran and his wife, Michal, who has a master’s degree in computer science, took charge of the program. “Instead of a list of questions, we started writing mathematical stories incorporating facts, math trivia, questions and riddles,” Elran says. “We try to develop the children’s mathematical thinking and to expose them to topics they don’t normally encounter in school.”
Today the program includes children from third to tenth grade and, more recently, adult participants as well. Its reputation has spread by word of mouth, and the traditional “snail mail” has of course been joined by electronic mail and direct communication via the program's Internet website. “Every participant receives personal feedback,” says Elran. “There’s no competition, no grades. We believe in personal guidance and constructive criticism.”
During the Passover vacation, participants in the program are invited to a mathematical “treasure hunt” at the Institute, which takes them along a route through the Clore Garden of Science. The program’s Internet site provides virtual visitors with weekly riddles, games, help with solving the questionnaires and a discussion forum that allows them to exchange ideas. Israel’s Ministry of Education has requested copies of the questionnaires so it can provide them to other interested students.
Two years ago, the number of math-by-mail program participants in Israel doubled, and it doubled again in the last school year. Some of the newcomers are already second-generation participants. Moreover, word of the program has spread beyond Israel: Translated questionnaires are now distributed in Russia as part of a broader effort to get Jewish youth interested in Israel. Every year, outstanding participants are invited to come to Israel for a visit, including several days at the Weizmann Institute. In Korea, the program is being implemented with great success outside the official educational framework. In the minds of many Koreans, the Weizmann Institute is connected with math teaching. The program also has a branch in Canada, initiated at the request of the Canadian Society for the Weizmann Institute of Science when Elran was pursuing postdoctoral research in Toronto. “We started with three schools; today the program operates in 21 schools in several major Canadian cities. It introduces youngsters not only to mathematics but also to Israel and to the Weizmann Institute of Science.”