JANUARY 11, 2018 – SWAMPSCOTT – Across the North Shore and New England, there are few who can match Mark Gelfand’s passion to educate children in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM. Because of Gelfand, thousands of children in Ethiopia and Israel are enrolled in STEM schools and centers that the Swampscott resident designed, built, and financed.
Gelfand grew up tinkering with electronics in a Cleveland suburb. He went on to study physics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and helped to develop the standard calculator for the international structured finance markets.
“I was a regular kid. I played football, center and nose tackle, but when friends would go out at night, I would go down to my lab. I started this hobby in the fourth grade,” said Gelfand, whose father was a pharmacist and a science and chemistry teacher, and whose mother was a school speech and hearing therapist. “For my bar mitzvah present, my uncle got me a shortwave radio kit that I had to build. In those days, there were vacuum tubes and I learned a lot about the math and the engineering and the electronics behind it. I was hooked. I could think of an idea and build a circuit to do it. I built test equipment to make test equipment. I designed my own oscilloscope [voltage reader] at 16.”
In the 1990s, when he was living and raising his three sons in Newton (all are now engineers), he noticed that just a small percentage of the district’s children were studying science or engineering. So he volunteered to teach a before-school enrichment class. Soon 60 kids had enrolled, and he was teaching them everything from physics to how to build circuits and crystal radios.
He went on to volunteer as a science enrichment teacher for the Boston schools for 10 years, and traveled from school to school on his motorcycle. “Almost every kid loved it. It was hands-on, and it got their brains thinking,” he explained.
Around that time, Gelfand began contributing to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and also built a science center at Yemin Orde, a youth village near Haifa that helps educate 500 orphans and at-risk kids. “After seven years, the school’s robotics team became the number one robot builders in Israel,” said Gelfand.
At MadaTech, the Israel National Museum of Science, Technology, and Space in Haifa, he established the Gelfand Center, which offers programs for Israeli youth in robotics and model building.
Gelfand also established the first connection between the Technion and Ofanim, a nonprofit that introduces at-risk Israeli children to STEM programming. He also funded Ofanim’s first mobile classroom bus, which was converted to a mobile STEM lab with computers and robotics instruments. That program serves about 1,750 Jewish and Arab children each week, according to Ofanim’s founder, Haim Dahan.
“Mark is an amazing guy and a real ofan [angel] to so many children in Israel,” said Dahan. “Throughout my many years of involvement in social work, especially in Israel, I [have] met very few people like Mark that are fully and totally committed to the welfare and well-being of the weak among us. He does it from a pure, honest, and true place within. He is so modest, humbled and sincere. He does it from a deep inner conviction with no self-interest.”
On his way back to the US from Israel in 2008, he traveled to Ethiopia and fell in love with the people and the country. “I had a magical first trip,” said Gelfand, who met with the country’s government ministers and was further intrigued when he learned more about Ethiopia’s educational goals. At the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, he was told that the country had set a goal to train 70 percent of its university students in science and engineering.
“I realized I could actually help the country; it was nation building I could get involved in,” said Gelfand.
These days, he’s up at 3 a.m. most nights working on his educational projects in Ethiopia and in other African countries. To date, he’s built 15 high schools and another 18 STEM centers in Ethiopia and other East African countries such as South Sudan, Kenya, and Burundi. As many as 6,000 students are served at each STEM center a year, according to Eyoel Hailu, chief technology officer of Gelfand’s nonprofit, STEM Synergy (stemsynergy.org).
“Mark is such a visionary,” said Hailu, who is based in Bishoftu in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. “Most students in Africa do not have the exposure for labs like we have at our Ethiopian STEM centers. Our programs fill the gap of quality education, and they pave the way for future gains to reach the competency in the western world. It’s hard to completely describe the impact of his contribution.”
When he works on projects in Africa or Israel, Gelfand also thinks about ways to help students close to home. Six years ago, his family charity donated $1 million to boost STEM programming in Swampscott schools. He’s also made generous donations to local Jewish institutions, and created the Leonard Gelfand Center for Service Learning and Outreach at Carnegie Mellon University to honor his late uncle.
Wherever he goes, STEM education is at the forefront of his thoughts. “I find that science and engineering is the most connected thing in the world because its people who want to problem-solve,” said Gelfand. “It breaks down every barrier that exists – with boys, girls, and ethnic groups. I have projects in South Sudan where there are 67 ethnic groups fighting, but our science and engineering center there brings everyone together.”