Jewish Schools Can Lead In STEM Education
Tue, 01/15/2013

My high school engineering classroom feels like the downtown loft of a high-tech start-up.

In one corner, students pour over a “smart” air-conditioner device they’re designing. Others crowd around a laptop to trade impressions of a new prosthetic arm on a YouTube video. And some pace around on their mobile phones, questioning an engineer at an automated parking lot company.

Is there even a teacher in here? I’m the old kid in the middle with a big smile on my face. This is what STEM education should look like.

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education, and we’ve heard it bandied about in recent years in educational circles and congressional hearings, and even during the recent presidential campaign. 

Why? Because the reality is that many schools — Jewish secondary schools included — are largely failing students in these subjects.

Studies reveal that 21st-century careers are STEM-related  — engineering, computer science, geophysics and the like — and that American students are not getting the education and experience they need to fill these critical, well-paying jobs.

So as our community wrestles with how to make Jewish secondary schools a worthwhile and valuable destination and investment, we need to calculate a radical new approach to STEM education. 

It must ignite the natural curiosity of students and give them tools to innovate, create and cooperate to solve real problems, infuse them with possibilities, and put them on equal — if not superior — academic footing with counterparts in other advanced, and advancing, countries.

And that’s where my noisy classroom comes into play. 

For the second year, Solomon Schechter School of Westchester and many other Jewish day schools in New York and New Jersey are utilizing an innovative three-year STEM curriculum developed by Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network (ISTSN) and implemented here with support from the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE).

The STEM program is remaking science learning and recalibrating my role as a teacher. The ISTSN curriculum empowers me not to spoon-feed facts or walk students through predictable laboratory experiments. Instead, I teach basic scientific and technological concepts, provide tasks and goals, and set students free to research, explore, tinker and discover largely on their own.

One year into teaching the ISTSN curriculum, I see the benefits of this alternative Israeli model of STEM education, even for students who might not ultimately pursue a traditional STEM career.

Student teams compete in “design challenges” that include robotics competitions and bridge-building contests, and complete projects that address societal needs through technology and science. And throughout the three years of the course, students learn more than the physics, electronics and programming needed for their projects; they learn time management, team building, delegation, self-reliance, division of labor, effective presenting, and navigating different personalities and work habits.

I can’t think of a better way to engage students in the real-life application of STEM skills, many of which will help them in college, at the workplace, and even in their personal relationships.

A STEM curriculum in a Jewish educational setting engages students with a bona fide Israeli success story. For American students who struggle to make a political, religious or cultural connection to the Jewish homeland, technology can be a valuable link.

So by embracing STEM education, we not only recognize its present and future value, we also understand that creative and effective education increases the attraction of Jewish high schools. Secular courses that are academically rigorous, alongside more traditional Judaic studies, must be the formula not only for a robust Jewish school movement, but also for preparing our students for success in college and careers.

This Jewish education success story we are writing doesn’t have to end with STEM. More foundations and private organizations like CIJE must step forward to support innovative leaps in the way that Jewish day schools teach the arts, humanities, history and even athletics.

All Jewish day schools and yeshivot must, as Schechter Westchester does, secular curricula that bolster the reputation, relevance and attractiveness of their schools. Jewish schools can and must rise to the forefront of American education, equipping students for the 21st century and serving as a proud Jewish example for the rest of the nation, and the world. 

Daniel Aviv is a science teacher at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester.

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