The halls of Central High School were buzzing with excitement on a recent Friday afternoon. Not only was it a half day, which is cause enough to be excited, but it was the day of the junior prom, held later that night at Reading Terminal Market.
And there was one contingent of students who were particularly excited.
A group of eight Israeli students had spent the week in Philadelphia — with sightseeing days in New York City and Washington, D.C. — to meet with the seven Central students with whom they’ve been collaborating on a science project since October.
In addition to spending time around Philadelphia, visiting mainstays like the Franklin Institute, the “Rocky steps,” Chickie’s and Pete’s and a Phillies game, the Israeli students — all juniors — were heading to prom with their Central counterparts.
The students, from Amal’s Menachem Begin Comprehensive High School in Safed and Amal’s Comprehensive High School in the Druze village of Kisra Samia, have been working with the Central students on a system to filter polluted water and eliminate heavy metals.
The students were inspired by the ongoing lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Mich., as well as the notion that water contamination is a widespread issue around the world.
There are systems that decontaminate water, but it is often expensive and inaccessible to most people, said Joseph Campbell, a science teacher at Central who is helping the students along with Darcel Bonner.
One of the ways they found to be effective is using mushrooms that are bio-absorbent and soak up heavy metals, he said. On their most recent test, they saw a 90 percent decrease of heavy metals in the water after using their filter system, which is made up of mushrooms, sand and parsley.
While the Central students focused primarily on using mushrooms, the Israeli students had worked most often with parsley and other herbs. This week was the first time the students met face-to-face to work together, combining the two elements.
“We want them to be able to work together with people from diverse backgrounds in order to solve an actual problem,” Campbell explained. “I’m there to help them, but every idea they’ve had has been their idea; it’s come from Israeli students, it’s come from Central students.
“The teachers, we’re there to be a guide and to organize but not to do the project, so that’s the main thing,” he added. “This is their work, they should take pride in it because it’s theirs — it’s not mine, it’s not the Israeli teachers’, it’s theirs.”
For the Israeli contingent, establishing cross-cultural experiences has been paramount.
“We as educators and teachers believe that we have to bring together students from all over the world, because there is a lot of prejudice,” said Ofer Zafrani, principal of the Amal schools, pointing to the diversity of students at both Central and Amal’s schools.
“Personal meeting is the best way to break any barrier,” he added. “The effect of this delegation in Central, it’s much bigger than the seven people here. The whole school is interested. [The students] told me yesterday they feel like celebrities. Everyone comes to speak with them and wants to know more about where they come from and what they do, and whoa, surprise! They are exactly the same.”
The project helped illuminate the idea that many places around the world share the same issues, Amal teacher Yael Piateka added.
“We thought about this project together because we both have a problem with water,” she said. “In Israel, we don’t have enough water and here the water [is polluted] and heavy metals [are] in the water, so it’s the same project that suits both of us.”
She was amazed to see that the teens in such vastly different areas of the globe were thinking the same way.
Zafrani hopes it becomes an annual project and that the students have more opportunities to work together to make a difference — and embrace their own differences.
While the science element is, of course, key to this endeavor, “the most important thing in such a project,” Zafrani explained, “is meeting, is getting to know each other, getting to have the opportunity to understand more about different cultures and to accept and to break all the barriers that we are having in our mind about different people from different places. From that point of view, it’s amazing. The bond is wonderful and we are very happy to have this opportunity.”
The Israeli contingent has been staying with host families and getting to experience living in Philadelphia. The Central students will get the same opportunity when they travel to Israel at the end of May to continue working on the project and travel the country.
Keren Or Kavosh and Abigail Leedy, both 17, spent the week together and noted the instant friendship between the two groups of students.
“This was a great experience to do together, and also on the social level,” Keren said of the project. “We talked on Skype and stuff, but didn’t really meet, and then when we got here, it was a fast click. It was really fun.”
“We all were a little nervous,” Abigail admitted, “because … we were all hosting people, and we’ve been talking about the project and hadn’t really gotten to know them that well, but it was five minutes after they got here we all felt like friends. … It was really interesting meeting students from the Middle East region and getting a different perspective on life there and the politics there and seeing how much we had in common given that we live so far apart.”
Abigail is looking forward to going to Israel and getting to experience life there — particularly the food. And Keren is more than happy to show her around.
Until then, she was excited to get a fancy dress, get a pedicure with Abigail after school and head to the prom that night.
“Of course, the science project and experiments, it’s important,” she said, “but the more important thing is we have a created social connection with other people.”