High-Tech, Higher Learning At Heschel Day School

High-Tech, Higher Learning At Heschel Day School

There’s something innovative and inspiring happening in Room 214 at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. Moving beyond a traditional science lab, Room 214 contains an expansive, recently acquired assemblage of technological tools that serve as the nerve center for Heschel’s STEAM program.

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) is an interdisciplinary approach to education in which the arts and project-based learning methods are combined with the traditional STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. Heschel recently implemented its STEAM program, and now Room 214 — known as the Innovation Center — will take student learning into the 21st century through 3-D printers, CAD (computer-aided design) software, robotics Legos, laser cutters, SMART boards with video-conferencing capabilities, and expanded ways to integrate computers and iPads into daily lessons.

A kindergarten student completes a pattern by manipulating objects with an interactive projector.
A kindergarten student completes a pattern by manipulating objects with an interactive projector.

Other area Jewish schools adopting STEAM include Adat Ari El in Valley Village and Milken Community Schools in Bel Air. The customizable program is being integrated into a variety of public and private schools around the United States.

Robin Wallach, Heschel’s director of advancement, noted the initial catalyst for bringing STEAM into the curriculum was a school parent. “It was an anonymous school family who enabled us to do this two years ago,” she said. The family donated a 3-D printer, and, “Once we brought the printer in, we started experimenting with it, and then things just took off from there with our teachers and students.”

To ensure the center would serve students from ages 5 to 14 in ways that fit the school’s goals and values, Heschel’s administrative team visited STEAM labs and high-tech facilities at a number of independent schools around Los Angeles. The director of Heschel’s middle school, Marc Lindner, explained that the team then pieced together ideas to ensure the center would simultaneously address general and Jewish education needs.

“When we were talking about the design of the room, for example, we made sure we had the ability to move the equipment around in the room and that it could also be used outside the center in their classroom,” Lindner said. “We also wanted to be sure that the center could readily be used by individual students or full classes.”

Lindner cites the eighth-grade students’ Jewish Identity project to illustrate how the center can help deepen learning and critical-thinking skills. “The challenge for our eighth-graders last year was to create something that was physical and tangible that would present something about them and their Jewish identity to the viewer,” he said. “While those students created beautiful things, with STEAM now in place, I can foresee Rabbi Jan [Goldstein] giving a similar assignment to the next group, with the Innovation Center offering them more options for how they may be able to express their Jewish identities.”

Teacher David Goldberg said, “[The] center has given the elementary students, including my fourth-graders, a chance to practice some of the Jewish values they are being taught in the classroom. They use the tools to interpret what’s being discussed and express themselves more collaboratively.”

He and fellow teacher Jody Passanisi cite the example of their students using the 3-D printer to make their own dreidels and mezzuzot for holiday-related projects. Video-conferencing capabilities, meanwhile, will allow them to connect with Israeli students, politicians and other relevant guest speakers. Digital photography and 3-D animation programs will enhance their exploration of Jewish subjects.

“They not only delve into Jewish values, but also universal values such as teamwork and love for learning,” Goldberg said. “We can foster the values taught in the Jewish studies program, and then integrate them into the general education environments, practicing those principles with guidance and supervision.”

“I think the STEAM lab curriculum and the Innovation Center dovetails beautifully with private faith learning,” Passanisi added. “For example, in terms of Judaic studies, there are open-ended projects, particularly with sixth-grade Judaic studies, where kids are able to show what they’ve learned about a concept like teshuvah [repentance]. To explore Rambam’s steps toward teshuvah, students can go into the Innovation Center and use the green screen, Legos and other things to show us how they interpret and understand it.”

Wallach said that with STEAM and the center now in place, education transcends memorizing content. She said Heschel students have the “content in their brains,” and that the tools and innovative lesson plans compel them to find new ways to express that knowledge.

“We believe that we are fortunate to have this advanced opportunity, and we sense this will catch on at other schools.”

Patrick Gregg

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