Day School STEM Program Creating Budding Engineers
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Day School STEM Program Creating Budding Engineers

Nonprofit encourages students to be unafraid of failure and ‘fearless’ about problem-solving.

Chana Schwartz, a Bruriah 11th-grader, demonstrates the “Care Chair,” the project she developed with Adina Strong and Adina Weisel.
Photo by Eli Weintraub Photography
Chana Schwartz, a Bruriah 11th-grader, demonstrates the “Care Chair,” the project she developed with Adina Strong and Adina Weisel. Photo by Eli Weintraub Photography

As Esther Deutsch worked with two classmates to assemble the “TrackPack,” their engineering project at the Bais Yaakov of Waterbury High School in Waterbury, Conn., she recalled last week, the three students experienced not only the thrill of creating something new, but plenty of frustration as well.

“A lot of things weren’t working,” said the 14-year-old Deutsch, a ninth-grader at the all-girls yeshiva, and the three students had to do more than just a little troubleshooting. “But we made it through,” she said, “and here we are.”

“Here” referred to the seventh annual Innovation Day sponsored May 6 at the New York Hilton by the 17-year-old Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education, or CIJE.

The event is a showcase for the final projects of more than 1,200 students from around the region who are enrolled in the CIJE-Tech High School Program, a unique, two-year course at nearly 50 Jewish day schools and yeshivas around the region. Students taking the course receive an introduction to engineering, electronics and computer programming during the first year; learn about various applications during their second year, such as robotics and biomedical engineering; and work on their final projects, or what CIJE calls “capstone” projects, both years.

Caption NeededMaya Neuhaus, left, Rachel Goldman and Shana Erblich, all Bruriah juniors, show visitors their “Tunnel Vision” project. Eli Weintraub Photography

The schools with which CIJE works — more than 200 around the country — range from pluralistic community day schools, to schools affiliated with Conservative Judaism and modern Orthodoxy, to chasidic and black-hat Orthodox yeshivas, said Jason Cury, the organization’s president. The technical program, one of a variety of educational initiatives developed by CIJE, prepares students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math, subjects collectively known as STEM.

The program is aimed at giving students the skillsets they need to land a good position in today’s job market, Cury said — skills that many schools in general, and chasidic schools in particular, often fail to provide, according to education advocates. 

As with other students in the program, girls at Bais Yaakov worked on their capstone projects in teams of three, said Jay Smallwood, an engineering specialist for CIJE who mentors teachers and students. The teamwork emphasizes collaboration, which, according to Smallwood, is essential to “any large engineering project or in the working world in general.”

In addition to Esther Deutsch, the team that worked on the “TrackPack” included Devorah Farkas and Tova Levine, both 15, who beamed as they described their project.

“We decided we needed a tracking device” that would help children find misplaced items, such as keys, glasses or books, Levine said, adding that the idea came to her because her father is repeatedly losing his Bluetooth headset. Working together, they developed two transceivers, said Davita Rosenbloom, their science teacher, who explained that one acts as a transmitter while the other serves as a receiver. The transmitter can be attached to any object that might get lost and the receiver is placed in a backpack. Once the receiver picks up a signal from the transmitter, it can alert the user by setting off a vibration motor and LED lights, which are connected wirelessly.

The project required the students to write two separate sets of code, making it more complicated than many projects in her class, Rosenbloom said.

Like the “TrackPack,” each project showcased at the event is designed to improve the world or help others — one of the program’s requirements. The students are instructed to create a device that would benefit society in some fashion, Cury said. “They’re not just working on the next game.”

Many of the projects are biomedical in nature, such as “AED On-the-Go,” an automated, external defibrillator invented by Emily Gruber and Jonah Braverman, both 12th-graders at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, N.J.

Consisting of a battery, capacitors and electrodes, their AED is more portable and more cost-efficient than other defibrillators, said Emily, 18, who volunteers as a junior EMT for a local ambulance squad. “The idea is similar to an EpiPen,” the small, pen-like injection device that treats reactions to life-threatening allergies, in that it’s designed to be readily accessible. “You can have them on a camping trip, in schools, in every classroom,” she said.

Several feet from Gruber, Chana Schwartz sat in a wheelchair that she and her 11th-grade classmates, Adina Strong and Adina Weisel, have named the “Care Chair.”

“This is my grandmother’s wheelchair,” said Chana, 16, explaining that her grandmother died in 1990 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. The memory of her grandmother’s struggle planted the idea for the “Care Chair,” which is aimed at helping people whose limbs are paralyzed.

The person in the wheelchair can wear special glasses equipped with a laser if they want to perform certain chores, said Bracha Erblich, their teacher at Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth, N.J. The laser, in turn, controls a nearby robotic arm through head movements. The user can also blow into a microphone, attached to the chair, if they want to active or deactivate the laser.

Three of Erblich’s other students — Shana Erblich, her daughter; Rachel Goldman; and Maya Neuhaus, all juniors at Bruriah – created a device to detect tunnels used for transporting terrorists or smuggling drugs. “Tunnel Vision” locates tunnels through sensors, maps them, and sends their coordinates to a command center, the teenagers said, adding that they hope their system might be used one day by government agencies.

In addition to the showcase, the May 6 event included an awards ceremony. Schools received awards based on the number of projects they presented, with Bruriah and the Frisch School, a co-ed, Modern Orthodox yeshiva in Paramus, N.J., winning first place. In addition, CIJE’s judges gave awards to eight different teams in such categories as Assistive Technology, Safety, Healthcare and Consumer Products.

CIJE came into being 10 years ago to enhance the quality of secular education in Jewish schools. The organization launched the CIJE-Tech High School Program eight years ago, working originally with seven schools, said Judy Lebovits, the agency’s vice president.

Since then, the number of schools with which CIJE works has expanded to more than 200 throughout the country, 70 of which offer the engineering program.

The agency has also made inroads with chasidic schools, which have traditionally emphasized religious studies over secular education, Lebovits said, although of the 186 participating schools listed on its website, fewer than 3 percent are chasidic, meaning CIJE still has a long way to go in gaining traction in chasidic communities.

Most chasidic institutions provide only 90 minutes of secular education each day in elementary school and middle school, and none at all in high school, said Naftuli Moster, executive director of Yaffed, a group that advocates for reform of that system. He added that secular education for girls in the chasidic community tends to be better than schooling for boys, who are expected to become rabbis or religious scholars.

Meanwhile, what makes CIJE’s engineering program unique is the assistance it offers schools, teachers and students involved in the course, Smallwood said. The teachers, most of whom have science backgrounds, take an immersive, weeklong engineering class during the summer. Engineering specialists like Smallwood, a former chemistry teacher at a Jewish day school, work closely with the teachers and students to answer questions and smooth over problems. CIJE also provides the teachers and students with textbooks and engineering supplies during the length of the program.

Erblich, one of the teachers who works with Smallwood, said the program has had a “huge impact” on Buriah, where an increasing number of students are now interested in engineering careers.

The program has created “a whole different learning experience for our students,” Erblich said. “They have to self-teach. They have to present and defend their ideas before the class, which critiques them and gives them feedback. They have to research the project’s market, how it would help people and how it would solve a problem.”

Moreover, she added, it’s taught them that failing is part of the process and that it’s OK if things break down, encouraging them “to be fearless about problem-solving.”

Tova Levine, one of the students who created the “TrackPack,” knows the transformative power such teaching can have. Once a project is finished, she said, “You think you’re very smart and that you’re able to figure out anything.” 

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