Brand-new labs, advanced equipment prep students for sci-tech careers


While Jewish day schools across Los Angeles have always tried to keep children and teens rooted in their ancient faith, new programs are now helping students develop the skills and creativity needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Over the past decade, secular and religious schools have adopted STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and STEAM (which factors in arts) curriculums, integrating these previously disparate disciplines. These initiatives — customizable for grades K-12 — are based on the premise that the future success of today’s students depends on not only what they know, but also on how they use what they know. 

Yet this type of learning requires new classroom approaches — such as hands-on, project-based learning — as well as specialized facilities and equipment, such as advanced computers and 3-D printers. To meet these needs, many schools are creating “innovation labs” on their campuses.

YULA students working on a robotics project in the new YULA Genesis Innovation Lab. Photo by John Solano

Allison Sostchen, director of general studies at Gindi Maimonides Academy, said the school’s addition of an innovation lab has “been a complete game-changer, as it adds so much value and opportunity to our activities. For example … use of a 3-D printer to demonstrate principles of design, circuitry and basic programming; and use of digital storyboarding and ‘mindmaps’ as methods for integrating writing, research, and visualization of abstract concepts.”

Jewish values, such as compassion, are often integral to projects. At YULA Boys High School in West Los Angeles, students used a 3-D printer to create a prosthetic hand. And at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, middle-schoolers created and patented a Word Ring, a scanning device for sight-impaired people that converts text to audio. 

“Sure, there was science and math going on before [STEM and our innovation lab] came to our school,” said Larry Kligman, head of school at Heschel. “Yet when we embarked on this, we realized this was beyond ‘new.’ This inspiration came from the fact that we don’t know what jobs our kids will apply for 20 years from now. What we do know is that there will be a new set of skills they are going to need to be able to secure those jobs and thrive in them.”

At Milken Community Schools’ Saperstein Middle School, the STEAM department offers elective, extracurricular and co-curricular courses in design, robotics, programming and more. Milken’s high school has had four semifinalists in the Intel Science Talent Search; 16 students with patents or provisional patents on their Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge products; and 18 Mitchell Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) students whose research at Milken has been published in scientific journals. 

Miss America 2015, Kira Kazantsev, center, visits Milken Community Schools’ MAST classroom. Photo by Roger Kassebaum

Although there is great excitement about the prospect of pushing education into the 21st century, change does not come cheap. The process of procuring investors, grants, donations and other forms of financial support has been a learning experience for leadership at the schools.

“STEM requires both instructional support, financial support and time,” said Tami Weiser, head of school at Wise School, which goes from kindergarten through sixth grade. “I have a group of teachers and administrators who meet twice a week just for that integrating step. We discuss initiatives, planning STEM events, and making sure things get carried out in the different spaces.”

It cost $300,000 to develop Wise’s new innovation lab, which was made possible by a donation from the Tyberg family and is used by all the academic disciplines. The Moradi family donated $50,000 that went toward remodeling the science lab, and this academic year, the school also added a project studio, which integrates STEM with social studies and further bolsters the science program’s engineering component. 

At YULA, parents and lay leaders Sherri and Arnold Schlesinger approached the school about unifying existing STEM efforts into the Genesis Academy for Innovation, said Richard St. Laurent, general studies principal. Genesis provides STEM education for students at all levels, including those at YULA Girls High School, St. Laurent said. The centerpiece of Genesis is the innovation lab, a hub for a variety of programs.

YULA students working on engineering projects. Photo by John Solano  

YULA teacher Ian Arenas oversees Genesis, which opened in its current form this academic year, and he described some of the ways lab activities are enriching students’ education. 

“For example, a 3-D printer can be used to re-create Hellenistic architecture to document and preserve information. … Genesis Academy partners with corporations and organizations such as [after-school program] LA’s Best, the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) schools and the national Veterans Affairs office through a teaching and mentorship program, using the mobile science/innovation lab,” he said.

At Wise School, science teachers Alexandra Coatney and Mandy Bolkin are excited about how their initiatives came to life this year.

“Students are taking what they learn home with them,” Bolkin said. “They are loving our in-class projects and are taking advantage of opportunities to get more involved with their community, such as participating in Coastal Cleanup Day.” 

Seeing kids and teens in these labs, engaged in creation and invention, provides a palpable sense of how these investments are already paying off.

At Heschel, the newly remodeled Robotics Club space was packed with kids brushing up on their programming skills or preparing their entries for the upcoming First Lego League competition, where thousands of teams from around the world will be tasked with building robots that perform a particular job. This year’s competition focuses on trash and recycling. 

YULA students Eitan Tennenbaum, 17, and Benjamin Goldstein, 15, talked about the impact that their STEM education has had on them.

“The school already has computers we use every single day, [but] having a lab where you can express yourself with [things such as] 3-D printers and the Oculus Rift [a virtual reality device] really enhances the experience,” Eitan said.

“Learning how to use technology now … can help you when you’re finished with school to get a job,” Benjamin said. “It also teaches creativity and how to use your brain, and in the end, will help you succeed in anything. 

“[I’ve learned] that you can build anything with anything, and that your mind opens up when you walk into this room.” 

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