30 Mar 2011

Robots, wineries, Ben Gurion and more

Posted by Deborah

Monday and Tuesday, March 28 and 29, 2011

I’m not sure BGU could have crammed anything else into our Monday. We started at a “human factors” lab used to study the effects of fatigue, alcohol, marijuana, distraction and so forth on drivers. Researchers are also testing devices that use vibrations or other tactile signals to help pilots respond to emergency alerts.

Industrial engineering professor Tal Oron-Gilad explains how a sophisticated dome-shaped screen and control center create a virtual testing area for experiments on pedestrian and pilot behavior.

 

Next, more fun gadgets, like prototypes for robots that would spray pesticides, pick fruit and serve food. I was impressed by the number of women in the engineering and robotics departments. That’s apparently not so unusual in Israel, but it’s a stark contrast to what you see in the States.

Sigal Berman, head of computer intelligence, talks about her work developing computer programs that recognize human gestures

I won’t go into detail about the rest of the day, which included meetings with at least a half dozen faculty and doctoral students. But I will highlight dinner, which we shared with three students who are involved in university efforts to improve the city. In fact, the restaurant where we ate was part of that: a handful of BGU leaders opened it a couple of years ago and hired at-risk high schoolers to help them run it. The neighborhood hardly looks like a slum – no vacant buildings or graffiti like you would see in Philadelphia. But our guides say it’s much more obvious inside the cramped apartment buildings. Of course, the neighborhood has also cleaned up quite a bit since students began living there, rent-free, in exchange for weekly community service.

Wait staff at Ringlebloom Café got creative with our dessert.

The night also ended on a high note for me. With the help of a BGU geology professor, I found a folk dance session within a 10-minute walk of our hotel. I didn’t recognize a soul there, but luckily I did recognize most of the dances. Or at least I faked them well enough for a couple of people to ask me where I learned “all the dances” and whether I would come back next week.

Jet lag was still wearing on most of us Tuesday morning, It was hard to stay focused on Prof. Zeev Weisman’s two-hour presentation on extracting energy from olive oil byproducts, even though I’m actually very interested in the subject. Weisman’s lab has been able to turn the water and solid waste left over from the oil production into useful products like biofuel; now the challenge is coming up with an efficient, cost-effective way to do that on a large scale.

Zeev Weisman holds out a jar of biodiesel fuel that he and his students made.

A tour of the green features added to the campus, mostly over the past three years, helped us all wake up a bit more. In addition to a new, state-of-the-art nanotech building, the university has refined a solar-powered system to heat rooftop water tanks and may have a patent for it in the works.

A BGU staff member with the new rooftop system that harnesses solar energy to heat water used in student dorms

After lunch, we began our trip south to Sede Boqer, where the university’s newest campus is located. We stopped first at Nahal Boqer farm to sample wine that farmer Moshe Zohar produced from his combination vineyard and bed and breakfast. You know, when I think of an Israeli entrepreneur, I often picture a young MBA grad with a high-tech start-up. But Zohar was truly a jack-of-all-trades businessman. Aside from farming, he constructed every structure on his property, from the barrel-shaped shop to the B&B cabins to the ecologically friendly bathrooms. He’s also growing a number of varieties of olives and pomegranates for Weisman’s research.

Zohar, in front of one of the cabins he built above his vineyard

The main shop and wine tasting room at the farm

From there, we continued to the home and then the grave of David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister. I thought I had seen both of these sites before but I must have confused that with something else. We watched the sun set over the breathtaking canyon that his grave overlooked as a BGU professor painted a brief picture of his life.

Once it was dark, we were off to the hotel in Mitzpe Ramon, the closest city, or perhaps village might be a better word. Like Be’er Sheva, we had our choice of one hotel, though both cities may have a few independent inns that are just too small for our group. A new luxury hotel overlooking the Mitzpe crater is scheduled to open later this year.

While the hotel left a little to be desired (like free wiFi, or even affordable wi-fi) the food has never disappointed. We stuffed ourselves with a family-style dinner of fresh salads, pasta, fish, beef (slow-cooked for 48 hours). Still starved for Internet, half the table spent part of the meal taking advantage of at least one place that had free wiFi.

The stunning canyon that Ben Gurion’s grave overlooks

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