Can This MIT Student Entrepreneurship Program Bridge the...

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Can This MIT Student Entrepreneurship Program Bridge the Israeli-Palestinian Divide?

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Aug 29, 2017

Can This MIT Student Entrepreneurship Program Bridge the Israeli-Palestinian Divide?

Ideological and political conflicts exist across the world, and often appear oversimplified and binary: conservative versus liberal, left versus right, the 99 versus 1 percent.

Yet the reality is often much more complicated. And for children born in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, growing up in the world of ideological tension has been a way of life.

While Middle Eastern entrepreneurs have tried to encourage peace and conversation between Israel and Palestine through binational work, many organizations struggle to recruit from either country. However, one of these programs—Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow (or MEET)—has used an education-first approach since 2004 to invest in bright young students. With programming support from MIT faculty and graduates, MEET brings together equal numbers of Israeli and Palestinian high school students each year to engage in coding and entrepreneurship training, and subsequently, cultivate cross-border relationships and collaboration.

Recently, EdSurge’s Mary Jo Madda came across MEET on a trip to Israel, and upon returning to San Francisco, connected with the team’s U.S. Development Director Etai Freedman, an Israeli native, to hear more about teaching student entrepreneurship and what American student-facing programs learn from MEET. Take a listen to the EdSurge podcast to hear his thoughts, or to check out the full Q&A, scroll below.

EdSurge: Where did MEET come from? How did it form?

Etai Freedman: MEET is an “excellence” education program that's been around since 2004. We recruit the brightest Israeli and Palestinian students to come and work together during their formative years. The students start the program at the age of 14, and finish at the age of 17. We specifically target this age group because this is the last moment in Israeli and Palestinian society where both are on similar tracks—they're just high school students. Of course, these are also their formative years where they form their values that are going to guide them as adults.

We provide them education in the fields of technology and entrepreneurship. We do this because, if you want to recruit bright kids to participate in a program today, when you say, “Technology, entrepreneurship, MIT,” then they raise their hands and want to participate. But then, of course, once they come in and they join the program, they get much more than that. They get contact with one another, and they also realize that there is value in binational work.

And just to clarify something, this is not about right or left—it's about building bridges between people using the common language of technology and entrepreneurship, and creating a foundation which we hope will assist in changing our reality in the region.

You mentioned MIT. What's the role of MIT in the program?

The MEET program is half-Israeli, half-Palestinian—and this is true from the student body, to the staff, to the Board of Directors. The only component that isn't binational is our partnership with MIT, which provides the instructors.

We get instructors from MIT, undergraduate and graduate students, who volunteer their summers. They're not Israeli, they're not Palestinian, they're not Jewish, they're not Muslim. Sometimes they are, but that's not why they sign up. They're basically MIT students who want to share their passion for education, and use their talent and skillset in order to have a positive impact in the world.

In fact, the reason that the MEET program works is because of the “other.” It's not Israeli, it's not Palestinian—it's students from MIT, who represent the 'other.' And because of that pull power of somebody who is neutral, we're able to recruit the brightest kids to come and participate in this program together.

When I saw the director of the program speak a few days ago, he mentioned that there are three core components to what the students learn. Can you tell us a little bit about what those components are?

There are three components to the MEET program—coding, entrepreneurship and deeper understanding. Students spend about 40% of their time studying entrepreneurship, 40% of their time with coding and 20% of their time with deeper understanding. "Deeper understanding" is our name for understanding the narrative from the other side, and some leadership development component, as well

A lot of the time, students will join the program because they hear, "MIT, coding, entrepreneurship." Then, they show up in the first year and they realize, "Oh, wow, now I actually have to interact with Israelis." Or Israelis say, "Wow, I have to interact with Palestinians, people I've never met before. I've only heard about them in the news."

In year one, they come in and get completely immersed in the project-based learning that we do. The whole idea of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is put to the side, and it's must more about creating that common base during the first year.

Once that common base is established, in year two, we take up our deeper understanding curriculum, and we up the ante. We have students talk about their family histories. We have them talk about their interpretations of what happened in 1948, what happened in 1967, and what even happened today and yesterday.

Then, in the third year, we ask them to really take on what they know about each other and, even more importantly, the stereotypes. They then [put] that deeper understanding into their final projects. This is the motivation that we want them to take to challenge the status quo.

We have student entrepreneurship programs in the U.S.—The Possible Project out of Boston, and Heart of Man out of DC, for example—but the big difference with your program is that you're bringing Israeli and Palestinian students together. I imagine that there are some ups and downs of that process. What have been the best parts and some of the more difficult parts of bringing those students together to learn about coding and entrepreneurship?

I think it's very easy to confuse MEET for an accelerator for young kids. MEET is not an accelerator. We use coding and entrepreneurship as a vehicle to bring the brightest kids together and have a value-shifting experience.

One of the challenges of the program is that, when you're doing project-based education, especially in coding and entrepreneurship, it's very easy to get attached to the results of the project. But for us, our goal isn't something that we can measure on the one-year or two-year mark. It's a very long term investment in the region, as a whole.

What, then, would you say is the future of the program? What are the goals for what this could become, or do you want to keep it where it is right now?

It's really important to remember that we get a thousand bright, young kids. Half Israeli, half Palestinian, half boys, half girls, who want to participate in the MEET program. We do this because we believe that diversity is a strength. And while we get a thousand applicants each year, we can only admit 80.

We have 200 active (throughout the entire-three year program) students in the program, but there's definitely room for growth. We get bright kids who want to participate, and we're not letting them in because we don't have the capacity. We don't have the financial capacity and the resources to grow the program. We are looking at different options, as far as creating something that's not as intense as the summer program. We're looking at perhaps creating a virtual hub in which students can participate remotely.

When I saw your team present in Jerusalem, someone who was there afterwards said to me, "What if you had a program like this in America, but instead of Israeli and Palestinian students, you had rural students and urban students? Or, you had students that come from a family that supports Black Lives Matter versus coming from a white Nationalist family?” Hence, my last big question really comes down to this: what can American student-facing programs learn from MEET?

I think the biggest lesson that people can take away, especially when we're looking at current events and the issues that we're seeing in the United States, is that MEET was able to leverage the impact of a project-based, excellence program into a value-shifting experience.

What I mean by that is, when our students come together and work hard on binational projects, they accomplish something that they thought was going to be impossible for them to accomplish. They don't just merely feel proud of the fact that they finished this project—they feel proud about the fact that they did it together. That's model that can be replicated anywhere.

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