With goggles over their eyes and gloves on their hands, Golda Och Academy fifth- and eighth-graders sat together at long cafeteria-like tables in groups, pouring chemicals and water in glass jars with lids.
As they watched, blue and white crystal gardens began to grow.
Fifth-grader Grace Levey of Livingston thought the experiment was “really cool” because, as she put it, “We’re making a chemical garden and then we get to take it home!”
But there was more to this project than science. It took place on Feb. 1, the 10th anniversary of the death of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon aboard the Columbia Space Shuttle. The experiment replicated one Ramon performed in space as part of an educational project.
Last year, the Conservative day school in West Orange was among the first schools in North America to incorporate the science experiment into its program, honoring the anniversary of Ramon’s death.
In 2011, Israel’s Ministry of Education had many Israeli schools duplicate the experiment, setting a Guinness record for simultaneous chemistry experiments. Hearing of this, Lilach Bluevise, GOA director of Israel programming, decided to adapt it to the school’s curriculum. Since last year, other schools have followed its example.
Before starting the experiment, students spent some time reviewing and learning pieces of Ramon’s biography. A fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force and a trained engineer, Ramon was selected in 1997 as a shuttle payload specialist. The Columbia broke up during re-entry, minutes before its scheduled landing. In 2009, Ramon’s son Assaf, a pilot like his father, was killed in a training accident.
As he did last year, Gil Lainer, consul for public affairs at the Consulate General of Israel, attended the GOA program and addressed the students.
“It’s very important that when we remember Ilan Ramon, we remember not only who he was as a person, father, and leader, but also what he symbolizes,” he told NJJN later. “He was one of the finest examples of what is great about Israel — a combination of talent, ability, leadership, excellence as a fighter pilot, a gifted pianist, and a prolific writer. We knew right from the start that he’d be an emissary for Israel and for the Jewish people.”
Lainer recalled that Ramon — whose mother survived the Holocaust — brought with him into space a miniature Torah scroll recovered from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and a sketch drawn by a teenage boy — his vision of the Earth as viewed from the moon — killed in Auschwitz.
Ramon, said Lainer, “often spoke about the importance of relating to the past in order to have a future,” said Lainer. “Education was always part of Ilan Ramon’s story.”
Karin Berger, a fifth-grader from Livingston, said just before starting the experiment, “I’m excited. I think it’s good to learn about Ilan Ramon. He seems like he was a really good person —he worked hard, he was a family man, and an astronaut.”
Eighth-grader Shira Kalet of Millburn, working with Grace Levey, took a broad view of the project. “I think it’s really cool to get to experience what Ilan Ramon did in space,” she said.