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.” 

Nobel winner Shechtman stresses education, entrepreneurship

Accepting his Nobel Prize, Israel’s Dan Shechtman encouraged entrepreneurship among the young.

Shechtman, of the Haifa Technion, became the 10th Israeli to win the world’s most prestigious prize at Saturday’s annual Nobel ceremony in Stockholm.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Shechtman’s discovery of quasicrystals, long ridiculed by colleagues, “has created a new cross-disciplinary branch of science, drawing from, and enriching, chemistry, physics and mathematics. This is in itself of the greatest importance.”

“It has also given us a reminder of how little we really know and perhaps even taught us some humility,” said academy professor Sven Lidin.

Addressing the Nobel banquet, Shechtman said scientists have a duty “to promote education, rational thinking and tolerance.”

“We should also encourage our educated youth to become technological entrepreneurs. Those countries that nurture this knowhow will survive future financial and social crises. Let us advance science to create a better world for all,” he said.

Interviewed Sunday, Shechtman, 70, made clear he worried about education in Israel—specifically that of the haredi Orthodox sector, which sometimes places more a premium on religious studies than on core secular subjects.

“You can pray to the heavens, but it doesn’t put bread on the table or provide defense for the country,” he told Israel Radio.

Shechtman called for state funds to be denied to schools that neglect the core curriculum and for parents who deprive their children of a rounded education to be “punished under law.”

Israeli study: As negotiators, man smart, woman smarter

Forget the men when it comes to business negotiations. Women may be more skilled than their masculine counterparts, according to a new study by an Israeli researcher.

The doctoral study, by Yael Itzhaki of Tel Aviv University (TAU), indicated that in certain groupings, women offered better terms than men to reach an agreement and were good at facilitating interaction between the parties.

“Women are more generous negotiators, better cooperators and are motivated to create win-win situations,” Itzhaki said.

Itzhaki, an adjunct lecturer at TAU’s Faculty of Management at the Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration, carried out simulations of business negotiations among 554 Israeli and American management students at Ohio State University, in New York City and in Israel.

The simulations, which were designed to examine how women behave in business situations requiring cooperation and competition, involved negotiating the terms of a joint venture, including the division of shares.

During the course of her research, Itzhaki discovered that while women in mid-management positions are often held back from promotion for being too “cooperative” and “compassionate,” men have begun to recognize the skills of their female colleagues and are now incorporating feminine strategies into their negotiating styles. “The men come in and use the same tactics women are criticized for,” she said.

Although both men and women can be good negotiators, Itzhaki emphasizes that there should be more women in top management jobs. Women have unique skills to offer, she said: They’re great listeners, they care about the concerns of the other side, and they’re generally more interested in finding a win-win situation to the benefit of both parties than male negotiators.

woman smarter william shatnerThese are especially desirable traits in today’s business world, which is calling for service improvements for customers and clients. Women today are earning more top positions in banking because of this trend, Itzhaki says.

In part, she says, women don’t reach CEO positions because they lack the right professional experience for the job and never enter the pool from which top positions are drawn. Managers commonly choose successors and colleagues who are most similar to themselves, Itzhaki explains. As a result, men are more likely to promote men.

Itzhaki, who is the founder of Netta, a nonprofit organization that promotes the advancement of women in the workplace, is currently advising Israeli companies on how to take affirmative action. Enforcing equal opportunity laws is one concern, but her advice also responds to concerns beyond the law. Are women being heard in corporate boardrooms? Does the company have policies that measure the amount of work accomplished and not merely hours on the job?

A lot of women don’t want to “fight” to be recognized, she said, preferring cooperation over competition. But more women in management can translate to a healthier bottom line, Itzhaki said.

“Businesses need to develop an organizational culture where everyone is heard, because women’s opinions and skills can give businesses a competitive edge,” she said.


Retiring Cal Tech Chief Reflects on Roots

The announcement that David Baltimore will retire next year as president of the California Institute of Technology has been greeted with a rich outpouring of encomiums that go well beyond the mandatory praise on such occasions.

What has not been mentioned is that the career of the brilliant biologist, who won a Nobel Prize at age 37, stands as well for the breadth and social responsibility of an American intellectual rooted in his Jewish heritage.

Such a man of science, like many of his peers, tends to be neither religious nor involved with the organized Jewish community. However, as The Journal reported in an earlier, lengthy interview with Baltimore, he “sees himself now as a secular Jew, but one whose outlook and achievement are rooted in his early Jewish upbringing and family life, and who hopes that he has transmitted the same values to his daughter.”

On another level, Baltimore’s biography represents the familiar success story of the American-born son of struggling immigrant parents ambitious for their children.

His father, Richard, was the only son of a poor, Orthodox family from Lithuania, orphaned at age 14. He worked in the garment industry, never went to college, but taught his two sons that “the most important thing in the world is a book.”

Baltimore’s mother, Gertrude, grew up in the household of a tailor from Ukraine. After her sons were born, she went to college, earned an advanced degree in psychology and at age 62 became a tenured professor at Sarah Lawrence College.

Although Baltimore’s father was a religious Jew and his mother an atheist, they maintained a comfortable relationship with a mutual understanding of their differences.

Young David attended Sunday school at Conservative Temple Israel in Great Neck, N.Y., and celebrated his bar mitzvah there. Hand in hand with the family’s intellectual interest went a humanitarian life view and an “inchoate socialism” that dictated concern for the underprivileged.

During his nine-year tenure as Caltech president, the 67-year old Baltimore translated many of his family’s principles into practice, on top of raising the university’s already elite level of scientific research and education. He showed a keen interest in the quality of student life through improved housing and a multimillion dollar student activities fund, and raised the profile and number of women on the faculty and in the student body.

On the public stage, shunned by more cloistered scientists, Baltimore spoke out freely on controversial issues, an attitude consistent with his family background.

Indeed, he almost lost out on his 1975 Nobel Prize, when, on the cusp of a breakthrough experiment, he shut down his laboratory to protest the U.S. Army’s invasion of Cambodia. An early and insistent advocate for AIDS and stem cell research, Baltimore has not hesitated to criticize President Bush and his administration for endangering the nation’s future scientific strength.

Will there be a future generation of great Jewish scientists whose home environment spurred them on to excellence? Perhaps, but Baltimore is not overly optimistic.

“In my generation, and the one before, the leading scientists have been extraordinarily and prominently Jewish,” he said. They rose to the top because they made “the necessary sacrifices to develop the skills to become great scientists.”

Encouraging and enforcing the needed sacrifices were the Jewish parents, “who exerted, and believed in exerting, the necessary pressure” on their sons and daughters. Today, that pressure is largely absent, not because the parents are less ambitious for their offspring, but “because they believe that their kids should define their own existence,” Baltimore said.

Baltimore is married to Alice Huang, senior councilor for external relations at Caltech and a faculty associate in biology. The couple has one daughter, Teak, who is married and lives in New York.

As for now, the driving ethos of the old Jewish home, he observed, seems to have been taken over by Asian immigrants and their children.

Baltimore will remain at Caltech as professor of biology and focus on his scientific research and teaching.

In June, he received a $13.9 million grant by the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Baltimore’s proposal, “Engineering Immunity Against HIV and Other Dangerous Pathogens,” will address the challenge of creating immunological methods to deal with chronic diseases.


Editor’s Corner – Junk Science

“Both sides ought to be properly taught,” President George W. Bush told reporters in Texas Aug. 1, “so people can understand what the debate is about. Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought…. You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”

Bush, of course, was talking about the debate over whether “intelligent design,” which is reclothed creationism, should be taught alongside the theory of evolution in biology classes. And his declaration is consistent with his past statements on this matter, which have riled his critics then and now. Those who rail, however, that Bush’s views represent a fundamentalist, right-wing takeover of reason should remember that William Jennings Bryan, the most articulate and forceful opponent of evolution in American history, was a lefty.

A really big lefty.

The man who came to embody a reactionary opposition to modern science did so out of a deep concern for the fate of all of society’s oppressed: the poor, the trade unionists and women. He ran four times for president as a populist Democrat, once on the same ticket that offered his Scopes trial nemesis, attorney Clarence Darrow, as a congressman.

Bryan’s objections to evolution will be spookily or wearily familiar to anyone who has been following the current revival of the debate. The literature of the intelligent design movement makes a totem of the eye, using its complexity on the cellular level — of which Darwin had no idea — as proof of Darwin’s blind spot. Bryan was drawn to the eye as well. The chances that an eye evolved out of “light-sensitive freckle” are so astounding, he orated, “Is it not easier to believe in a God who can make an eye?”

Bryan opposed teaching evolution not only because he believed it would undermine belief in God and the Bible, but the Great Commoner also feared that a Darwinian view of humanity “would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and power of wealth.”

The end result would be social Darwinism by those who “worship brute ancestors” and the unrestrained use of eugenics.

What Bush and Bryan have in common, if not their political affiliations, is a faith-based understanding that science devoid of moral compass is a dangerous enterprise. And the 20th century provides plentiful examples that this is true. As wrong as Bryan was about the science of Darwin, he was prescient as to the implications. Francis Galton repackaged the science of his cousin — Charles Darwin — into junk science. In the late 19th century, he invented eugenics, and the idea held England in thrall until the 1930s. One fan across the Channel was Adolf Hitler, who wrote adulatory letters to leading eugenicists, and would use their crackpot theories to give his human experiments the patina of medical research.

The president’s partiality to intelligent design keeps with a fundamentalist religious tradition that from the beginning has viewed evolution as contradictory to the word of God as revealed in the Bible. If humans evolved from lower life forms as a result of a mechanistic biological process, where is our sense of purpose, our meaning? If we are no different than animals, what prevents us from treating others like animals?

No such contradiction need exist. Bryan famously said that where the Bible and the microscope disagree, throw out the microscope. But 700 years earlier, the Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides said that if religious teachings contradicted direct observations about the natural world, either we failed to understand the teachings or the observations. In other words, the deeper we contemplate science, the more profoundly we must understand faith. The study and acquisition of scientific knowledge, he wrote, “are preeminently important religious activities.”

Through scientific understanding, Maimonides wrote — and centuries of Jewish doctors lived to prove — we can better take care of our bodies, that we may more fully serve God.

A great wealth of Jewish tradition adheres to this view. We need science to explain how the world works. We need scripture, study and prayer to understand why it works, and to what ends. All of which suggests that, even for a religious person, intelligent design belongs in a comparative religion class — or perhaps in a design class.

Abba Hillel Silver, the great American rabbi, said it best — to Bryan no less. Silver stepped into the fray just as Bryan penned his 1925 attack on evolution, which he titled, “Is the Bible True?” Silver answered Bryan — and Bush — in a sermon at The Temple in Cleveland.

“Science or religion?” Silver said. “Which will survive? Why, both — if man is to survive. Without religion, science is a dreadful destroyer, a machine that will crush the very man who invented it; for the mind let loose in the world, unrestrained by ethical and moral consideration, uninspired by purpose, is so much dynamite in the hands of a child. Religion without science is a helpless thing, subject to all the angers of superstition, subject to constant degeneration, because with the mind atrophied and the intellect left untrained, a man remains permanently incomplete. Science and religion are friends. God created His world by wisdom, and the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.”

Hands Off My Volcano

One evening not too long ago, I strolled through the science fair at a local middle school. The work of the students was not much in evidence, but the fingerprints of their parents were everywhere. No matter how often they are warned by teachers to let their children do the science projects, many parents just can’t let go. They’ve got to jump into the game, using the creaky excuse, “It’s for the sake of my child. Winning a prize here could mean a lot on that college application a few years down the line.”

There seems to be no limit to the parental interference — or subterfuge. I’ve been on a national speaking tour this year and have unearthed some alarming stories, even at wonderful schools. Some of the smartest, most devoted parents are using bizarre, often unethical, nearly illegal maneuvers in the name of protecting their child’s academic standing. A middle-school teacher told me he received an e-mail from a student demanding a point-by-point explanation of her grade on an English exam. Problem is, this was the student’s English teacher. He knew the girl’s writing style and vocabulary. He also knew her gentle nature. The teacher quickly figured out that the e-mail was not written by his student. That’s right, it was written by her dad.

Driven by anxiety that their children will not measure up, parents bend the rules and force their children to do the same. Some have confessed to me that they enroll their children in unnecessary tutoring or test-prep classes and urge them to keep it secret from the school.

Along with lessons in deviousness, children are learning from their parents that actions have consequences. That is, their teachers’ actions do. Frustrated teachers tell me that today’s parents have a very low tolerance for average grades. If a student receives a “C,” not on a report card but on a single test, it’s not uncommon for the parent to phone the teacher and issue a reprimand.

Even “C” students get the message: You are not responsible for your grade, your teacher is. If you don’t like it, it can be fixed — not by working harder, but by complaining.

Why are normally reasonable and ethical parents resorting to such extreme maneuvers? Stock wisdom says that nothing fundamental ever really changes, but our world is fundamentally different from the world we grew up in. The startling and rapid changes we see in the economy, in family life, in religious institutions, technology and education leave us breathless and excited, disoriented and anxious. As sensitive, protective parents, we want to armor our children with a thick layer of skills to prepare them for this uncertain future. We have convinced ourselves that they must excel at every level. If that means tilting the playing field, so be it. We’re ready. But what about our children?

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, the great, uncompromising Chassidic leader, once said, “If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise, they will not themselves study Torah, but will simply instruct their children to do so.”

No parent wishes to leave a child with a legacy of lessons in lying and cheating. Quite the opposite. We care so much about teaching our children ethics and respect that we send them to religious school to study Jewish rules about being a good person. But our children learn far more from our actions than they do from any character-education curriculum. By teaching them to exaggerate, break rules, disrespect adults and be devious, we won’t end up with children armored for the future but with children armored only for a solitary climb to the top of the college-admissions pile. Once they are adults, the bad habits they learn from us are more likely to hurt them than to give them an edge.

When I look at all those science projects so clearly lacking the clumsy, painstaking touch of a young hand, I can almost see Mom or Dad toiling away, their child at their side, begging for a turn with the glue gun. But today’s determined (and fun-deprived) parents are not giving an inch. A papier-mâché volcano! Messy poster paints! Baking soda! Vinegar! Here’s an excuse to play and ensure a good grade for my child. The joy of creation, the satisfaction of doing all that hard work, maybe even the thrill of winning a ribbon — what parent can resist? For the sake of their children, more of them should.