HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Full STEAM Ahead! Cultivating 21st Century Skills

by Danny Aviv and Karen Everett Issue: Rising Ed Trends

STEM education is the hottest trend, especially in the US, where students lag behind counterparts abroad. Aviv and Everett argue for STEAM instead, combining technical learning with art and design to foster student creativity across the curriculum.

American primary and secondary educational institutions, including Jewish day schools, are recognizing the need to adequately prepare students for the educational and professional realities of the information age. In the past, education often focused on the dissemination of content with the assumption that students would acquire relevant job skills along the way. Past performance assessments emphasized the recounting of facts, figures and formulas. Incorporating STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) into the curriculum and culture of our schools will help address the educational requirements for 21st-century preparedness.

The past few years have seen the explosion of STEM (STEAM minus the art component) initiatives in elementary and secondary education. The addition of art into the STEM mix is now being championed to ensure the inclusion of creativity and design as teachable 21st-century skills that are necessary for the successful development of any technological innovation or invention. In addition, the educational design of school is moving away from the compartmentalizing of students into areas of interest. In other words, theater “geeks” can also be computer “geeks” as light and sound require significant technological skills; and art class is moving organically into the digital world with CAD (computer-aided design), digital photography and sculpting with 3D printers.

At the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester in Hartsdale, New York, our multidisciplinary pre-engineering Sci-TECH curriculum is capturing the innovative spirit and innate curiosity of our high-school students. Beyond the classroom, it is catalyzing a schoolwide move toward a comprehensive STEAM culture.


Our school just completed the second year as a founding member of the American Sci-Tech Network, sponsored by the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE, thecije.org) and modeled after the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network (ISTSN, israel-scitech-schools.org) high-school engineering program. CIJE is a nonprofit organization which works to enhance and enrich the quality of Jewish education through innovative STEM programs such as Sci-Tech. ISTSN is a network of high schools, industrial schools, educational centers and technical, engineering and academic colleges throughout Israel. A hundred thousand students, Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouins from every part of Israel and every social and economic level, are producing the next generation of Israeli engineers and the citizens of the “start-up nation.”

Through CIJE, we received a two-year introduction to the Sci-Tech engineering curriculum developed by ISTSN, including laboratory equipment, teacher training, and technical support in the form of an engineering instructional advisor. Launched in 2011, the CIJE-ISTSN partnership is being taught in 14 Jewish day schools in the New York area and will be taught at an additional eight California high schools in 2013-14.

Sci-TECH at Schechter Westchester is a selective three-year program beginning in the 9th grade. It counts as a full academic class (as opposed to an elective) that students take in addition to conventional science and math and replaces the second world language (all of our students take Hebrew) in the high school schedule. Although it is hard to demand a three-year commitment from 9th graders, the extensive curriculum requires it. In the Sci-TECH classroom, students work independently in teams of three or four to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to solve technical and task-oriented real-world problems. Each year culminates with a final project in which each team conceives, designs and constructs a prototype technological device that fulfills an identified need. Throughout this process, students develop essential interpersonal skills and an appreciation for technological innovation—and have a whole lot of fun.

The Sci-TECH curriculum was specifically developed to foster the life skills, learning habits and work ethic needed to thrive in a 21st-century workforce. Those skills include collaboration proficiencies, digital literacy, critical thinking, perseverance, communication and social skills, teamwork, self-management, time management, as well as media and technology skills that involve accessing and evaluating information.

As educators, we must answer some difficult questions: How do we foster and measure a student’s ability to work in teams? How do we determine each team member’s strengths and develop project management plans that capitalize on these strengths? How do we best measure a student’s understanding of the breadth and depth of knowledge that literally exists at their fingertips? More importantly, how do we best cultivate their ability to access and synthesize that knowledge when each problem they are trying to solve requires a different research path? Ultimately, how do we prepare students for careers and jobs that do not yet exist? At Schechter Westchester, we believe that Sci-TECH brings us closer than a conventional science curriculum to answering these questions..


Implementing Sci-TECH into our high school curriculum presented many challenges. We had to modify the Israeli program to align with the realities of an American Jewish day school. Specifically, we had to find the time in our already crowded schedule to add another full academic course, we had to create learning modules which were more consistent with our current block schedule, and we had to create content better suited to the American educational model of unit assessments and grades.

Sci-TECH, while lively and fun, is also extremely demanding. For recruitment, we continue to refine our admissions process to identify the types of student who can handle the rigor of the program as well as reap the most benefit from it. All interested students must complete an application in the spring of 8thth grade that includes a personal statement, school transcript, and recommendations from both science and math teachers. More informatively, each candidate is interviewed by a Sci-TECH teacher along with the upper school science department chair.

We have found that a student’s past academic success (“straight As”) is not sufficient in itself as a predictor of success in this type of team-oriented, project-based course. We require that our prospective Sci-Tekkers maintain a minimum B average in all their subjects. Their teachers and dean must confirm their ability to handle this course in addition to all of their other high school work.

Our experience reveals that the most successful Sci-TECH students are tinkerers, builders and unrelenting problem solvers. We seek self-declared “geeks,” but not necessarily in science or technology. We find that students who begin with genuine excitement, are independent and self-motivated, and can negotiate the challenges of working in teams are the ones who will benefit most from Sci-TECH.

Our Sci-TECH classroom is unlike a classic science classroom both physically and pedagogically. Currently Sci-TECH classes meet in a high school science lab previously used exclusively for biology and chemistry. In the future, we hope to create a dedicated Sci-TECH space—a combination electronics/robotics/computer design/fabrication laboratory where students have the resources to fully develop their final projects.

In fact, we see Sci-TECH as the 21st century version of what used to be known as “shop class.” Walking into our Sci-TECH classroom, you are greeted with tables filled with student projects, which take months to put together, in various states of construction. There is an air of controlled chaos; teams of students are huddled around laptops and everywhere you look there are gadgets, tools, wires, electronics components, art and building materials.

Relatively little class time is spent lecturing. Students are not fed information to be regurgitated later on an exam. Rather, they are taught basic scientific and technological ideas and information, given goals, tasks and parameters, then set free to research, tinker and discover largely on their own. Course areas include engineering principles, computer programming and mechatronics (where mechanics and electronics overlap). Students work almost exclusively in teams to complete laboratory assignments, participate in design challenges, and develop their final projects.

Students must also keep a course journal, which is modeled after an engineer’s notebook. They reflect on the challenges presented by assignments, share thoughts on how well their teams are functioning, and develop strategies to work more efficiently and effectively. Many Sci-Tekkers begin the three-year course frustrated by having to work in teams, but by the end of the second year, they have learned to identify key tasks required to meet project goals, how to delegate responsibilities (including the role of team leader/manager), how to present in front of the class, and how to manage their time successfully.

Evidence of Success and Outreach Beyond the Classroom

As educators, Sci-TECH offers us tangible evidence of the acquisition of 21st century skills. In 9th grade, first-year Sci-Tekkers seem tentative, wanting to be handed the solutions, and not necessarily understanding what it means to be part of a professional project team. Students are confronted with having to work with everyone on their team, whether they like them or not; teams are assigned, not chosen by the students.

By 11th grade, and in many cases long before that, Sci-Tekkers are excited to jump right into a problem, know how to establish the team protocol and project plan, are able to define critical questions and go out into the virtual and real worlds to gather information to get answers. Final projects require both written and oral presentations and demonstrations in front of not only fellow classmates and teachers, but also professionals in related STEAM fields.

Student teams dream up projects that track their own personal interests and experiences. Projects developed this past school year include a school bus tracking device to automatically monitor elementary school children as they get on and off the bus; a SMART merging system to alert cars when it is safe to get on a highway; and an electronically controlled stage prop rose that can be used to drop petals for a local theatre production of Beauty and the Beast. The first two of these address direct concerns in their lives—younger siblings falling asleep on the bus and insecurities of a new driver—and the third beautifully demonstrates the melding of arts and technology.

Outside of the Sci-TECH classroom, we are learning more about the steps required to build a STEAM Jewish day school. For example, because we have always viewed ourselves as a community resource, we developed additional programming to foster STEAM literacy in our greater educational community. That programming includes a distinguished lecture series entitled STEM Talks which brings professionals in STEM-related fields to speak to students, parents and teachers from our own and nearby schools; and the STEM Educators Network which meets for dinner before each STEM Talk for the exchange of curricular and instructional ideas and experiences.

We are also finding that investing in a high school course such as Sci-TECH enhances our reputation as a school of excellence and innovation. This has direct effects on recruitment and outreach, especially during the critical 8th to 9th grade transition.

STEAM Is Here to Stay

Just as the best way to acquire a language is to begin learning at an early age, so too we believe that STEAM education must be infused into the core curriculum of our lower and middle schools. For Jewish day schools committed to providing outstanding secular and Judaic academics in addition to full and robust afterschool athletic and arts programs, this will continue to be a challenge. The school day is already full, so there is limited time for new courses. And because the majority of our students participate in afterschool activities, they arrive home late with a heavy homework load.

Adding STEAM courses to current schedules will require creativity and commitment on the part of educators and administrators. The ultimate goal is to ensure that all of our students graduate fully prepared for the demands of 21st-century higher education and careers without sacrificing the mentschlichkeit which is the heart and soul of Jewish education.

Dr. Danny Aviv teaches STEAM at Schechter Westchester. daviv@schechterwestchester.org

Karen Everett is the director of admissions and outreach at Schechter Westchester. keverett@schechterwestchester.org

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Rising Ed Trends

Day schools are reconceiving themselves as laboratories of innovation, adapting creative and entrepreneurial ideas from numerous fields. Survey here exciting trends from open spaces to gaming, Problem Based Learning and STEAM, and discover how day schools are embracing and innovating education.

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