KBA and Jewish Interactive team to build J-STEM Lab.
For the original article in the Jewish Community Voice, published by the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, click here.
Jewish Interactive’s J-STEM Director Liat Moss (left) with Helene Sterling, KBA’s Middle School tech coordinator, during Moss’ December visit to the school.
Rea Bochner – Voice Staff
Last year, Rachel Zivic, principal of Kellman Brown Academy, and Helene Sterling, KBA’s Middle School tech coordinator, wowed the panel of judges at the Federation’s “Shark Tank” event with their idea to create a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) laboratory at KBA that would serve as an educational hub for the entire South Jersey Jewish community. Now, their vision is well under way to becoming a reality, thanks to the help of Jewish Interactive, an educational nonprofit based out of the UK. KBA’s J-Stem Lab is set for a dedication on Sunday, Jan. 20.
The STEM education movement took off during the Obama administration. Unlike typical curricula which are designed for a single subject, STEM is a new approach to learning in which the goal is to integrate as many subjects and skills into the experience as possible.
In December, Jewish Interactive, which was founded to provide universal access to Jewish learning with their online and app platforms, sent J-STEM Director Liat Moss to KBA for a weeklong visit to teach coding and STEM to students in grades 3-8, and to work with the school to integrate STEM into their curriculum.
According to Moss, STEM is just as important a subject as the classic three: Reading, writing, and arithmetic. “A lot of those subjects come back to coding,” she said during a break between activities. “In order to understand it you need to have the logic, you need to use English to explain and communicate about it, and you need to use angles and coordinates, which leads back into arithmetic. It’s really one of those subjects that covers absolutely everything.”
For Moss, the J-STEM initiative (“J” is for “Jewish”) was much needed at Kellman, especially as general studies become more based in technology. “Students are using technology for everything else, then they come into their Jewish studies and Ivrit lessons, and it’s all pen to paper. It’s so different from everything they’re doing in their classrooms. Now we’re bringing Jewish learning into the 21st century.”
Those unfamiliar with STEM might assume that learning about technology involves simply sitting with computers and tablets, but Moss insisted that there’s much more to it. “It’s not just screen time or typing out code. With just some buttons or a camera, the students can code robots to get them from one end of the room to the other.” Coding itself is less about the technical and more about exploration. Moss believes that having what she calls “debugging skills” are vital to the process, which is inherently self-correcting.
Not that it’s easy. “The students get frustrated,” Moss said. “But they’re resilient. They bounce back. They’re able to say, ‘Okay, that was frustrating. Now I know what to do.’” By encouraging the students to communicate with each other and exchange ideas, not only are their projects enhanced, but also they are building socialization skills that they will need for the rest of their lives.
From what Moss sees, the process works. In one activity with the eighth grade, she had the class code digital dreidels. She challenged them to change the code so that if one partner shakes their dreidel, the other person’s responds. “Eventually, they all figured out how to do it,” said Moss. The students are exposed to hardware like microbits, LED strips, makey makeys, and electricity conductors like tin foil, apples, bananas, and potatoes, then learn how to use them. As they become more successful, the students are encouraged to take on leadership roles, teaching others what they know.
“The kids are our ambassadors,” said Eliana Seltzer, KBA’s Jewish life coordinator.
Kellman teachers learned how to create their own games, like a Passover maze in which students can “find the afikomen.”
“Though coding is technically a secular subject,” said Moss, “we can put the Jewish elements straight back into that.”
With STEM now well integrated at Kellman, the school is looking forward to the opening of their new J-STEM lab on Jan. 20, in conjunction with Community Mitzvah Day. The event, which is open to the whole community, will include workshops, activities, and booths set up around the school featuring various mitzvah projects. The Franklin Institute, a STEM partner with KBA, will also offer science programs at the opening ceremony. While the event will surely be memorable, the KBA J-STEM team sees it as just the beginning of a much longer journey. With partnerships already established with Temple Beth Sholom, Cong. Beth El, Temple Emanuel, Cong. Beth Tikvah, and PJ Library, they look forward to building bridges with the larger community.
In March, KBA and Jewish Interactive will also be hosting a Hackathon, in which groups of kids and young adults collaborate to create a STEM-based project, then present their ideas to a panel of judges. Also at the event will be students from a partner school in Camden as part of KBA’s vision to make the J-STEM lab accessible not only to the Jewish community, but to local, underserved communities.
“We’re not using tech just because it’s cool,” said Seltzer. “We’re asking, ‘How does this connect to the outside world and Tikkun Olam?’ One of our big missions this year is ‘We not Me.’ How does this serve the greater community? Let’s use tech to help others.”