Israeli teacher triumphs in international robot contest

Igor Podolsky aims to create a novel robotics curriculum to help pupils with attention and concentration difficulties.

Podolsky with “Eddy.” Photo courtesy of the Techion-Israel Institute of Technology

Podolsky with “Eddy.” Photo courtesy of the Techion-Israel Institute of Technology

It takes a lot of patience and dedication to teach math and physics to teens with attention deficit disorder. Igor Podolsky, a 30-year-old Israeli who recently won an international robotics Olympiad in Connecticut, is blessed with the right traits to do his job well. And he thinks robots may just help him do it better.

Working with Prof. Igor Verner from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, where he is earning a second bachelor’s degree in science education, Podolsky tested out a robot-making kit from the Korean company Robotis as his entry in the 2013 Trinity College Fire Fighting Home Robot Contest and RoboWaiter Competition.

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“Our goal is to create a robotics curriculum for middle-school children using this kit,” Podolsky tells ISRAEL21c.

His robot “Eddy” walked home with a first-place award from the humanoid division of the RoboWaiter contest for sophisticated machines designed to help people with disabilities. Podolsky earned his own top prize for his performance at the Robotics Knowledge Olympiad portion of the meet, which attracts 125 teams from around the world.

Under Verner’s guidance, a Technion group last year won first place with its RoboWaiter humanoid, which team members demonstrated for US President Barack Obama during his recent visit to Israel.

“Other Israelis did very well in this year’s competition, too,” stresses Podolsky. An Israeli robotics team from Ramat Gan won a second-place award, and a team from a high school in Misgav took third place in its division as well as the overall grand prize for its robot, project poster and performance in the Olympiad.

“They didn’t even have their teachers there to help them, as many other teams did,” notes Podolsky, like the proud educator he is. “I saw a great spirit of sportsmanship.”

Teaching is ‘pure pleasure’

Podolsky moved to Israel with his parents from Russia at age seven. He grew up in the northern border town of Ma’alot, graduating with honors from the electronics and computers track at the local high school.

This achievement qualified him for Atuda, a military academic program that allowed him to earn his mechanical engineering degree from the Technion prior to active service. He was an officer in the Land Corps’ Experiments Unit, responsible for studying the efficacy of every piece of new equipment before use in the field.

Podolsky in the Technion lab. Photo courtesy of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology

Podolsky in the Technion lab. Photo courtesy of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology

During his army years, he volunteered to teach mathematics, physics and English at a Ramle high school. His English is virtually unaccented, having had a language tutor from an early age, and honing his speaking skills with friends.

Unlike many freshly discharged soldiers, Podolsky did not throw a knapsack on his back and go trekking in South America. Rather, he returned to the Technion for the Mabatim (Views) Program to earn certification in science education while at the same time teaching at a private high school for kids with learning disabilities.

As a Technion graduate, Podolsky gets free tuition for four of the five semesters, but most importantly he’ll earn the credentials to see how teaching robotics might enhance the education of his students.

“Somewhere in the back of mind I always thought of teaching, and the degree I’m doing came up and it all fit together,” he explains. “I teach math, and next year, hopefully, robotics as well. I hope to connect those two. My professor [Verner] wants me to go on to graduate studies, to investigate if using robots can help alleviate attention and concentration difficulties.”

Living in Petah Tikvah north of Tel Aviv, Podolsky has chosen to work in a field that is neither lucrative nor easy. Yet he calls his teaching career “pure pleasure.”

“It’s a challenge that is not for everyone,” he concedes. “You need a lot of patience. Even my pupils sometimes ask me where I get the patience for them. Yesterday, we were working hard preparing for the bagrut [matriculation exam], and one kid got really frustrated and said he’s going home. I kept repeating, ‘You can do it.’ Later that evening, he thanked me for convincing him to stay. These are the things we live for.”

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About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.