September 20, 2019

Teaching tech in day schools

Four teenage girls huddled around a laptop computer in their brightly lit classroom. They were working on small circuit boards, known as Arduino boards, learning the mechanics and inner workings of electronic systems. 

On this day, they were trying to write code that would turn on the board’s LED lights. When one group of girls’ lights lit up, they jumped up and squealed with joy. 

It was an unusual scene at YULA Girls High School, where students typically take notes quietly while a teacher lectures on anything from biology to Rashi. In this setting, though — orchestrated by the New York-based Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE) — students worked in teams, teaching themselves the principles of engineering, science and math. 

“I’d never thought I’d be interested in technology, but then I came to this class and I see that it really applies to my life,” said ninth-grader Talya Sawdayi, a YULA student participating in the program. “I know how lights and computers and robots work. It’s really interesting.”

CIJE’s efforts to expose students at Jewish schools to a diverse range of scientific and technical areas while developing abstract thinking and leadership skills are now playing out at several area high schools. Beginning this past fall, YULA Boys and Girls high schools and Shalhevet School in Los Angeles, New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, and Valley Torah high schools for boys and girls in Valley Village began offering the CIJE-Tech High School Engineering Program, a two-year curriculum.

“Our mission is advancing excellence in secular academic education in schools across the denominational spectrum,” said Ellie Cohanim, CIJE vice president for development. “[Our program] was created because of the belief that we’re living in a global environment, and Jewish schools alone are not able to offer a 21st century education.”

It’s not just Jewish schools that face this challenge. The most recent rankings by the Program for International Student Assessment indicated that American students are below average in math and about average in science. That’s a problem because jobs in the future will be in science, technology, engineering and math, Cohanim said.

She said 30,000 American students in prekindergarten through 12th grade participate in various CIJE programs. The organization was founded in 2001, but the interactive CIJE-Tech curriculum — licensed from Israel Sci-Tech, a nonprofit that fundraises for science and technology education in the homeland — is a recent addition; it is run by three full-time engineers on staff who visit 48 schools in New York, Pennsylvania and California.

This program encourages teachers to act as facilitators rather than lecturers and lets the students work independently. That way, students build critical thinking skills and become prepared for a college classroom setting. 

At YULA Girls, biology teacher Alex Potapenko was flown to New York with other teachers before the school year started to learn the curriculum — the same lessons as the students, but in a condensed one-week period. 

“It’s not easy to do, but it pushes you to use your resources and really reach out,” he said. “I’m learning with the students, which is an interesting experience. They are so used to seeing teachers being robotic and thinking that they know everything. It humbles the teacher.”

At the beginning of the semester, Potapenko said that it was difficult for his students to understand that there would be no tests or nightly homework. 

“Everything was spoon-fed in middle school, and it’s hard to be open-minded about this type of classroom. In college, the professor will not be there to hold their hands. It’s prepping them to take initiative to work on their own and have a career where they’ll be working in teams.”

In one of the first team projects of the year, Potapenko’s students worked together to download different actions into robots’ systems. Another challenge was to  make bridges using only three pieces of paper and washers.

Recently, while Potapenko walked around his classroom observing his students, he was assisted by Adrian Krag, director of West Coast operations for the CIJE initiative. Krag has a doctorate in engineering and worked at a company that built prototypes for entrepreneurs. 

“You can imagine how these students are going to interact when they have jobs as engineers or entrepreneurs,” Krag said. “The whole basis is to give students the kind of confidence to go in and tackle a problem that nobody told them how to solve.”

Which is precisely the point of the students’ final graded project, a yearlong effort completed in teams of three. According to Krag, one student at another high school wants to build a system that senses when a car is running a yellow light and delays the other lights from turning green, so as to avoid collisions. Another hopes to construct a contraption incorporating three toothbrushes so users can get the cleanest mouth possible. Students learn that no idea is too big or small, as long as they believe in what they’re doing. 

“We allow students to really learn on their own, and if they fail that’s OK,” Cohanim said. “They have to keep trying until they succeed.”

To CIJE officials, success would mean seeing an uptick in students who want to continue their learning in these subjects. Cohanim would like to see 10 to 15 percent more students interested in engineering as a career. Student Miriam Waghalter said the program has been a good first step.

“It’s a very good class to take to open your mind to different things,” she said. “Before this class if anyone asked me if I would consider a career in science, I’d say probably not. Now I’d be more open to it than I was before.”