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Centennial for Israel’s Technion Institute

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Saturday, April 7th, 2012

“Israel can win the battle for survival only by developing expert knowledge in technology,” said the great scientist Albert Einstein in 1923. He had come to the Jewish homeland to plant a palm tree in his capacity as the first president of the Technion Society.

The following year, what is now the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology opened in Haifa with 17 students — 16 men and one woman.

But the hard work of Einstein and many others toward founding Israel’s first modern university had been years in the planning. “The Technikum” was meant as an alternative for European Jewish youth who were denied opportunities for technical studies in their native countries. This dream of establishing and maintaining a basis for Jewish industry got its tangible start on April 11, 1912, with the laying of the Technion cornerstone.

Now one of the premier technology institutes in the world, the Technion is in the last few months of its centennial celebration. And it has been a banner year for the institute. Prof. Dan Shechtman became the third Technion faculty member to win a Nobel Prize, and the Technion was chosen from many other applicants to found an applied science and engineering institute in New York City in tandem with Cornell University.

To kick off the year-long celebration last April, the Technion produced a short film highlighting its origins and major accomplishments, says Danny Shapiro, the university’s public affairs officer.

It would take a few feature-length movies to do justice to the institute’s impact on life in Israel and far beyond. The Technion’s more than 93,000 graduates account for at least 70 percent of high-tech executives in Israel. Among these Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze men and women are the folks who invented a bunch of “firsts” in the world.

Just a few of them: wireless technology microprocessors; an intestinal pill camera; the largest reverse osmosis desalination plant in the world; a nanotech “nose” to sniff out disease  and the ReWalk “exoskeleton” allowing people with lower-limb paralysis to walk.

Last July, Prof. Gideon Grader, director of the Grand Technion Energy Program, was named by an international committee to be founding director of the I-CORE (Israeli Centers of Research Excellence) in Alternative Energies. This initiative incorporates 27 researchers from the Technion, the Weizmann Institute of Science and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to act as an Israeli consortium for solar-based fuels.

Global impact

Technion alumni played a leading role in creating Israel’s industrial infrastructure and pioneering its technology-based enterprises – which now constitute the highest concentration of high-tech startups outside Silicon Valley. Google, Yahoo!, Intel and IBM all set up R&D facilities in Haifa to woo Technion-trained scientists.

When it opened, the Technion/Technikum offered just two tracks: civil engineering and architecture. Today, about 12,800 students can choose from 55 undergraduate areas of study and 80 graduate programs clustered into 18 academic departments. It also has 52 research centers. The institute’s 90 buildings sprawl across the picturesque Carmel mountains.

Measuring the school’s influence in many areas of science and engineering would be difficult. But Technion Prof. Emeritus Shlomo Maital and Prof. Amnon Frenkel have given it a try in their new book, Technion Nation: Technion’s Contribution to Israel and to Humanity, due out in June.

Maital estimates that the return on the $1 billion invested in the Technion’s 2010 undergraduate class will be somewhere between $1.76 billion to $3 billion a year as those graduates enter the workforce and implement their cutting-edge ideas.

The book also documents major Technion success stories, naturally including 2004 Nobel Chemistry Prize winners Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover, and 2011 laureate Shechtman.

The three men have been immortalized on a stamp issued on January 31 by the Israel Postal Company to mark the Technion’s cornerstone centennial. The postage stamp, the handiwork of Israel Technion Society director Naama Tumarkin, shows the original building façade designed by Alexander Baerwald, a Jewish-German architect and cellist who played in a string quartet with Einstein. Above the building, a hand holds a nano-parachute, a sophisticated Technion-developed airborne toxin detector whose structure and movement are based on the dandelion seed.

The VIP-studded gala introducing the stamp at the Haifa Auditorium featured a performance by the Shalom Zielony Technion Choir and Orchestra.

“Many people are surprised to learn that we have a student philharmonic orchestra and choir,” says Shapiro. “They present a concert at the end of each semester and it’s wildly popular.”

Other activities during the centennial year have included a student creative engineering contest, tours and presentations for visitors on Technion inventions that have been commercialized.

International, multicultural appeal

Centennial events planned by Technion alumni and supporters aren’t limited to Israel. Shapiro says all 17 Technion Society fundraising arms across the world are also celebrating with activities highlighting the far-ranging impact of Technion innovation and its academic ties with more than 100 institutions in 30 countries.

In September last year, five international bloggers were brought to Israel for an up-close look at the Israeli technology institute. Accompanied by Technion students, the bloggers Feng Yimeng of China, Eunice Khong from Singapore, Marcello Arrambide of Venezuela, Chris Richardson from Australia and Kaustubh Katdare (The Big K) of India got an in-depth taste of what’s going on at the Haifa campus, and let their followers in on it, too.

Increasingly, the Technion is opening its doors to wider global involvement.

“A few years ago we launched an International School of Engineering,” says Shapiro. Studying exclusively in English, students from many different countries can earn a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering here.

“Like all universities, we are aiming to be more and more international and encourage post-grads to come here,” Shapiro says. “The partnership with Cornell is part of our internationalization. Israeli academia has a lot to offer, and this tech campus in New York is one way Israel can contribute to the world economy.”

But the school invests most of its resources locally, starting at the grassroots level. Shapiro notes that the Technion has implemented programs to help disadvantaged and minority students to overcome educational and social gaps. For example, the 10-year-old Landa Equal Opportunities Project has successfully prepared many Israeli-Arabs for social and academic integration at the Technion through pre-university preparation and intensive mentoring and tutoring.

The institute also runs several joint regional medical, environmental and water research projects with partners from Arab communities.

For example, the Technion’s Water Research Institute recently completed a multi-year research project on treating wastewater and maximizing its quality and usefulness in agriculture.

“This type of research is aimed at helping all peoples of the region better utilize severely limited water resources, promoting economic growth, quality of life and the environment,” says Shapiro.

Overcoming a shaky start

Today it’s clear that the Technion lived up to Einstein’s hopes, and then some. However, the school’s future success was difficult to envision back then.

One of the first problems was deciding on the language of instruction. German was an obvious choice, as it was the language of science, and modern Hebrew was just making its comeback. Yet the proponents for Hebrew instruction ultimately won out. And that was “one of the defining moments in the crystallization of the Israeli cultural identity,” according to “War of the Languages: Founding of the Technion/Technikum,” a special exhibition at the Haifa City Museum last spring and summer.

In the 1930s, finances were so tight that the Technion staff voted to work temporarily without pay rather than close down the school. During those pre-state years and especially during the War of Independence, the Technion was an active center for the Jewish underground and a source of crucial technological defense solutions. Many refugee scientists from Nazi-occupied lands found a place at the institute.

Once the war was over, the Technion began to boom in response to newborn Israel’s many development needs. It moved to a larger campus, and throughout the 1950s kept expanding its course offerings for a rapidly growing student body, including a medical school.

During the 1960s, the school’s reputation started attracting hundreds of students from developing countries in Africa and Asia. The Soviet Jewish immigration of the 1990s added about 1,000 more students to the population. New buildings were added to the campus, including the Henry and Marilyn Taub and Family Science and Technology Center, which boasts the Western world’s largest computer science faculty. In 1998, Technion students designed, built and launched a microsatellite. Only five other universities have ever pulled off such a feat.

Over the years, scores of Technion faculty members have provided technological assistance to various countries under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry’s MASHAV Agency for International Development Cooperation as well as United Nations agencies.

“When so many qualities, skills and ideas are concentrated together, it is an exhilarating experience,” stated Technion president Peretz Lavie following last summer’s annual board of governors meeting, which was devoted to marking the cornerstone centennial. “Whether in the ability to structure ideas, the courage to dream, or sensitivity to future need, the Technion family is alive with talent, which is a veritable resource to Israel and our shared future.”