November 18, 2018

Day School lab stimulates ideas and empathy

On a recent Friday morning, 10 first-graders at Adat Ari El’s Labowe Family Day School in Valley Village were putting the finishing touches on some homemade canvas tote bags. There were hand-drawn pictures of polar bears alongside messages such as, “Don’t use plastic” and “Ride a bicycle.” 

But this wasn’t just another sweet art project about saving arctic animals from global warming. It was the culmination of a months-long course of study — one that started in the classroom and migrated to the school’s “think tank,” the first in a sequence of five colorful, beautifully designed rooms, each with a distinct purpose, in which pupils engage in hands-on creative study. 

Welcome to the Zebrack Design Lab. 

The lab, which opened in January, is the brainchild of Johannah Sohn, 35, a Phoenix native who this past fall became head of the K-6 day school, home to 108 students. She said the concept came to her after visiting the New York offices of Google this past summer through the Day School Leadership Training Institute run through the Jewish Theological Institute.

“I drew a lot of inspiration from that space,” she said. “I looked at tech company open-work spaces. I wanted to bring those elements [to Adat Ari El]. … If [kids] are going to have a job, they are going to have to navigate these types of work environments.

“I was thinking about universities,” Sohn added. “What does every elementary school parent want? They want [their child] to go to Harvard or Stanford. Why don’t we just make a little incubator here that is similar to these prestigious universities?” 

The lab itself is a bright series of rooms that begins with the think tank, where students are asked to consider a need or problem through a “lens of empathy.” On the polished concrete floor is a giant painting of a heart and the words “Start from the Heart.” 

“Education without purpose doesn’t stick,” said Sohn, a mother of three who previously served as the head of the Conservative temple’s religious school. “Why educate somebody to just know facts and not do anything with it? Part of what the Adat Ari El congregation’s philosophy is, is to make the world a better place. I wanted to make sure there is purpose to everything the kids are doing.”

So in this first room, for example, the first-graders honed in on the problem of polar bear population loss and formulated a driving question: What could they do to help the creatures? In the next room, the research cafe, they learned more about the animals and sat down with a scientist who taught them about the negative effects fossil fuels are having on the polar bear population.

In the development center, where ideas are put to paper, there is a 3-D printer, giant rolls of butcher paper and long work tables. Students decided they wanted to make drawings of polar bears, which would eventually be transferred to canvas bags to sell, with the profits going to a conservation group. Other students expressed interest in creating a public service announcement (PSA).

The penultimate and largest room, the innovation lab, is filled with art supplies, recycled boxes and electronics. This is where the kids are given a chance to create — in the case of the first-graders, building models of polar bears and adding additional detail and design elements to their bags. 

Finally, in the design processing room, the students recorded a PSA, singing a song they wrote. Lyrics included, “Polar bears are cute and fluffy / but that’s not why we care / The most important things they need / are ice floes and clean air!” 

Sohn’s vision for this space resonated with congregant Herb Zebrack, who has two grandchildren at the day school and who wanted to do something meaningful in memory of his late wife, Paulette. The president of Lithographix, a printing company, gave more than $250,000 to the school. This covered the cost of architectural and design plans — local designer Shayna Mordue consulted closely with Sohn on the project — furniture, equipment and other expenses. This summer, large windows will be installed, giving users a view from one room to the next. 

The lab occupies several formerly underutilized classrooms, a computer lab (which Sohn said was obsolete because every student in second grade and higher has a laptop or tablet), and the library, which was relocated.

Not every teacher and grade has used the lab extensively yet, although second-graders visited it during an extended study on transportation, eventually imagining and creating improved models of transportation for their parents. Still, Sohn hopes there will be multiple grades in the lab regularly in the future. 

“I think it’s beneficial for multiple ages to be in there at the same time, learning from one another,” she said. “Social constructivism at its finest.”

Adat Ari El Senior Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard said the space provides an opportunity to bring some powerful lessons to the Jewish tradition.

“I think Judaism, at its heart, is about being able to be creative. And the Zebrack Design Lab emphasizes a kind of openness and willingness to explore,” he said.

The lab is just one part of Sohn’s ultimate vision for the day school, albeit a significant one. She also wants to add a Hebrew cafe, a Judaic studies workshop and a math lab. She believes in the value of creating specific environments for a purpose and isn’t a huge fan of traditional classrooms. 

“My goal educationally is to create children who care about the world,” she said, “about the other, and have the tools to make a difference.”