Science Ed Picking Up STEAM In Unlikely Setting


The picture is hard to square with expectations: Yeshiva girls, many of them in long skirts, controlling mini-robots, or Ozobots, some of which they had programmed, as the high-tech gadgets snake around the multipurpose room following pathways drawn with markers. Welcome to the brave new world of the STEM curriculum.

In a bid to ride the science, technology, engineering and math wave sweeping through schools of all kinds in a fast-changing educational landscape, the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for girls in Teaneck, N.J., recently launched a curriculum it hopes will equip students for the 21st century.

The school, best known for its rigorous education, including promoting girls’ Talmud study, has recently started a program integrating technology into its curriculum and encouraging students to pursue careers in STEM. The program, called STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics), will weave mandatory computer science and engineering courses into the existing curriculum, and provide students with the opportunity to continue with these courses at an advanced level. (The added arts component doesn’t have to do with literature or poetry, but rather computer-based graphic arts.)

Ma’ayanot has also begun a school-wide initiative to introduce its students to successful women in these fields, and provide them with hands-on exposure to practical elements they may encounter working in them.

“In the past, the interest [for STEAM classes] was there but not at the level we wanted,” Orly Nadler, director of Ma’ayanot’s technology department, told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. The program’s kickoff event last month, she said, “has really taken us to new heights.”

At the event, held at the school, Ma’ayanot administrators passed out glow sticks as the students came into the multipurpose room. They hired a DJ with lighting, and gave out programs with candy attached. A slideshow projected images of inspirational quotes and the faces of technology personalities like Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. After the slideshow, six women in STEM fields spoke to the students, with music interludes in between.

After the talks, the students enjoyed a dairy lunch and were ushered into a “maker fair.” The fair had LED lighting and hosted members of The Maker Depot, designers who create different pieces of technology. “We had paper circuitry, robots, drones, LED buttons … we showed how algebra could create textile design, and we printed out geometric shapes and ironed them on to T-shirts,” Nadler said.

“Girls were hovering over their teachers’ shoulders to create their own designs,” she said.

The fair had booths with an arduino board, an object that lets any object be a controller for a computer. In this case, the students used Play-Doh as video game controllers, and activated different circuits using their hands.

And there were those tiny wandering Ozobots moving about the room. “There were various different robots, programmable robots, iPad-controlled robots. We wanted to get them [the girls] excited about robotics,” Nadler said. At one point, the students were all over the floor searching for a runaway robot that seemed lost.

Nadler said the goal for the event was “to take them from consumers to creators. There’s this abyss in the middle between the two. At our event, we showed the crossover. They can create, they can innovate. We showed them women just a few years older than they are who are successful and that they too can be successful.”

Ma’ayanot’s changes come at a time of increased initiatives to help get girls and young women interested in STEM fields, specifically technology. While women outnumber men in American colleges, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce study, they are represented in less than a quarter of STEM jobs. The study reported that women in STEM jobs earned 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs, and that women with STEM degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM field and are more likely to work in education. The gender gap between men and women in these fields is often attributed to a lack of female role models, gender stereotyping, and less family-friendly flexibility.

Organizations like Girls Who Code have summer computer coding programs for high school girls. Additionally, many organizations and colleges offer scholarships to girls and young women pursuing STEM subjects.

The chair of Ma’ayanot’s science department, Gila Stein, said, “The main goal of our curriculum is to encourage students interested in science; both for those who already have an interest and for those who don’t yet have an interest.”

Stein said of Ma’ayanot’s education that, “We want our students to be competitive and be prepared for the job market. We want to inspire our students by innovation and inspire them to major in STEAM fields.”

Currently, Ma’ayanot’s course offerings include a computer science class in Java programming, an algebra class with coding, AP Calculus AB and BC, AP Statistics, AP Biology, AP Chemistry and AP Physics, and a forensics elective, in addition to introductory level classes. Next year, the school is hoping to offer an AP Computer Science class, and a mandatory STEAM class for ninth and tenth grade students that will include computer science, robotics, engineering, big data analysis, and algorithms.

“In our electives we encourage them to do research projects and enter competitions,” Stein said. “We have students who have placed nicely in the Gildor competition, SIEMENS, and Intel.” Ma’ayanot faculty members help interested students find labs that guide them in conducting research.

“Our entire professional development this year has been technology integration, specifically using iPads,” Nadler said. “We spend a good amount of time every month on technology integration and have begun using apps that target specific skills,” she said.

The head of Ma’ayanot’s mathematics department, Randy Bernstein, is hopeful about the new STEAM program. “We’re hoping to do more mathematical modeling, and use computers for simulations. We want to do some more coding in our classes even at the lower level,” she said. Bernstein said students could even practice coding on their calculators and write programs. “[You can] write a program to use the quadratic formula, to find a derivative; of course they don’t want you to use that on the AP exam, but it shows you the concept of coding.”

Ma’ayanot principal Rivka Kahan described the changes at the school this year as an, “explosion of programming within different areas of the school. STEAM has really been integral.”

Kahan said the most successful aspect of the inaugural STEAM event was that “Over the course of the program the energy grew and grew.” The school, she said, was exposing students to opportunities they wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. Seniors were contemplating new careers and younger students contacted us about new course offerings,” she said.

When asked if Ma’ayanot saw an increase in applications this year, Kahan responded, “We’re having a strong recruitment year though not a dramatic increase. … We’re not just following what other schools are doing, we’re really at the forefront of that movement.”

“An important part of preparing our students for careers in technology,” she said, “is having an excellent math background. We have an excellent math program, and offer AP Calculus AB, BC and AP Statistics. It’s important to us to always offer those courses even if there’s a particularly small group interested … strong backgrounds in science [also] prepare them well.”

Bernstein said that “some of the students might not have recognized that these are careers they could go into. As high school students you don’t know what’s out there, and we’re showing them what’s out there and what they may be interested in.”