Area day schools pump up science, technology programs

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Studying about mitzvahs, some fourth-graders at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School weren’t just taught about the Torah prohibition on gossiping. They got a buzz, so to speak. First, they located the passage in the Torah dealing with shmirat halashon, or “guarding the tongue,” and wrote a drash, or interpretation, about its meaning. Then they invented a wearable gadget, like a Fitbit, to help remind them not to break the commandment. The gadget was designed to buzz every time they said someone else’s name.

Last spring’s mitzvah project at the Foster City day school, which combined Jewish learning and engineering, is part of a program called JSTEM (Jewish science, technology, engineering and math). The school developed the project with support from the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE), a nonprofit that provides curriculum, materials and teacher training to Jewish schools nationwide in order to broaden science and technology programs.

Students conduct science experiments at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School.

“For day schools to be credible, they need to have very strong science and math programs because parents expect that,” said Barbara Gereboff, Wornick’s head of school. The school started working with CIJE five or six years ago in an effort to enrich its science curriculum, integrating CIJE’s engineering curriculum into its middle school science programs. CIJE provided lesson plans and materials like circuit boards and microcontroller kits. The organization also brought Wornick science teachers to Israel and New York for training.

Later, the school developed the fourth-grade JSTEM program. Wornick was the only private school to be included in a recent three-year, $950,000 STEM education grant with the San Mateo County Office of Education and Stanford University. Gereboff credits Wornick’s work with CIJE with helping the school obtain the grant.

“I think it’s kind of a snowball,” Gereboff said. “CIJE got us thinking about these things.”

CIJE is a New York-based nonprofit established by the Gruss Foundation in 2008 to improve secular and science education in Jewish schools. It now works with 150 schools in 13 states, including a growing number in California. The latter are mostly in Southern California, but CIJE is enrolling a growing number of Bay Area Jewish schools from across the religious and educational spectrum. In addition to Wornick, Oakland Hebrew Day School, South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale and Meira Academy in Palo Alto are part of the CIJE program.

Sarah Goldstein, CIJE’s West Coast educational director, recently traveled to the Bay Area to meet with other Jewish schools. For a fee of several thousand dollars a year, participating schools receive teacher training, materials, lesson plans and whole grade-level curricula. Adrian Krag, CIJE’s West Coast STEM programs director,  regularly visits classrooms to mentor teachers and conduct lessons.

Meira Academy, an Orthodox, all-girls school in Palo Alto, is piloting a scientific engineering curriculum this year for 10th-graders.

Goldstein said maintaining a rigorous science curriculum can be challenging for Jewish schools that have to make time for Jewish studies classes.

“We do a lot of things in the Jewish schools that we don’t do in public schools, and that takes time,” Goldstein said. “Sometimes that time gets taken away from other subjects, including the sciences. My concern is that our students have to graduate and compete head-to-head for college entrance, for careers, for all of the things that make a real difference in a person’s economic future. Our kids are going to be the inventors, the company leaders, and they can’t come in having missed the kind of things that other kids got.”

The CIJE curriculum is inquiry-based: The intention is to engage students’ curiosity by presenting them with problems to solve in creative, hands-on ways. Sometimes this incorporates a Jewish spin. For example, as a Hanukkah project, CIJE eighth-graders programmed a 3D printer to print menorahs. Then they connected them to a computer board and installed LED lights so the menorahs would light up on schedule.

“It marries Jewish culture with education,” Krag said. “It is something that you can’t get in any other [program].”

Meira Academy, a small Orthodox high school that enrolls just north of 20 girls, adopted CIJE’s introduction to scientific engineering curriculum for its 10th-graders as a pilot this year. Computer science teacher Svetlana Goldenberg said the hands-on, inquiry-based method gets her students excited about science.

“It’s still very much an uphill battle with the girls to get them interested and excited about this stuff,” Goldenberg said. “There’s still the stigma of the geeky, bent-over boys with glasses. … Within a month, once [the girls] see the buzzers and the sensors and the responses, they are thrilled.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.