Morning prayers echo through the halls of Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Lower Merion. The first bell rings, interrupting the solemnity with the sound of students scrambling to class.
Thirteen of them land in the engineering lab, where they quickly begin flipping through schematics and copious notes as instructor Michael Sizer grills them on the mechanics of building an ultrasonic sensor that will detect exactly how far away an object is.
Then, these 11th graders are off on the tedious process of connecting circuit boards, wires and bulbs. The last step involves layering in and coding multiple computer programs to make sure that the finished product actually works — a task that doesn’t always go smoothly, especially since Sizer doesn’t simply dole out the answers.
“We are here all the time,” said Harry Esses, 17. “This is the only class I come to on my free time. The best part is the challenge after you know the basics.”
Esses has become so engrossed in the program that he sends his family pictures and videos of what he’s working on. And he’s even started discussing plans to attend an engineering school.
“We build something new every day by applying what we have learned.”
Soon, these aspiring inventors will travel to Lawrence, N.Y., to show off their projects at a May 21 conference with other Jewish day schools in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that teach the same engineering class in partnership with the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education.
The New York City-based nonprofit known as CIJE was established in 2001 to license, develop and adapt Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs for day schools using curriculum modeled after the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network. The programs are now being taught at more than 120 institutions around the country, from Orthodox yeshivas to Conservative schools.
Kohelet began offering the CIJE-Tech High School Engineering Program for juniors two years ago. Politz Hebrew Academy is the only other local day school that runs a CIJE program, in its case, for middle schoolers.
CIJE pays for the curriculum, equipment and training, which includes sending teachers to the largest independent network of science and technology schools in Israel as well as regular visits from an engineering mentor. Altogether, that can cost about $55,000 a year, but CIJE charges Kohelet only $5,000, said interim principal Rabbi Rafi Eis.
“This is a very significant cost,” said Jason Curry, president of CIJE. “But if we want our kids to get a 21st century education, then we have to put the effort and money into it.”
David Weinberg, a scientific engineering specialist from New York City, visits Kohelet twice a week to assist the kids.
“Students want to feel the science in their hands,” said Weinberg, who also mentors students in the center’s engineering programs in New York and New Jersey. “They want to see the science come to life — and I think that’s what CIJE-Tech does for them.”
Eis attributes the success of Kohelet’s engineering program to science teacher Sizer.
“He has put in an incredible amount of time and energy to make this program happen,” Eis said. “When you talk about STEM education — we all have had the science and the math. But he has really taken the “E” in engineering for the CIJE-Tech program and made it what it needs to be.”
At Kohelet, each engineering team works independently at a designated station, which enables members to specialize in certain skills and collaborate just like actual engineers would.
“What makes it fun for the students is that I try to take the current technology that they use in their lives and apply it to this course,” explained Sizer.
For example, they learned how the components of a smartphone work and then built a rudimentary one that emulated the touch screen on their phones.
“They actually put the components of a touch screen underneath a piece of a glass, which detects when you touch the glass,” Sizer said.
Recently, Sizer’s students also built speakers using coils of wire and magnets.
“When you buy speakers, you get a box but have no idea what is going on inside,” Sizer said. “By starting with the individual parts and putting them together, you develop a good grasp of how it really works.”
Zoe Abboudi, 16, said she enjoys the challenge of building and then testing electronic devices.
“It is very interactive and really keeps your attention because you are always doing things,” Abboudi said. “You create things, figure out how it works and apply it.”
Her team, named ZAM after members Zoe Abboudi, Anna Schuman and Meital Zimbalist, is building a speaker and amplifier that automatically adjusts the volume depending on how far away the listener is from the sensor.
“So if you walk out of your room it will play your song louder, and if you walk too far away, it will turn it off,” explained Zimbalist.
To test their devices, the students pass their hands in front of the sensor, hoping to see the calculated distance appear on the LCD screen.
“Oh, that is so cool!” a triumphant Abboudi shouts when her team finally gets a reading.
“ZAM team is back!” she crows, punctuating their success with a victory dance.
Esses is working on a sensor to attach to a car bumper that would convey exactly how close it is to another vehicle or obstacle.
“We found an everyday problem and asked, ‘How can we use our engineering knowledge and skills to benefit the world?’ ”