STEM Education: No Longer Enough

STEM-1By Danny Aviv, Ph.D.

Walk into my classroom at 9 a.m. and you might see a team of entrepreneurial students pitching a big idea. Come back mid-morning and you will find them building a fire-extinguishing robot. After lunch, a class might be on Skype with an executive from an Israeli tech start-up. And at 5:15 p.m., three students – who could have gone home an hour earlier – are completing a circuit to a new wearable heart monitor they’ve created.

This is what learning looks like in what we call our Idea Incubator, an innovative space that encourages students to play with concepts encompassed in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curricula and develop product ideas.

Adorning one wall are the words Tech-un-Olam. This obvious play on the Jewish value of tikkun olam – repairing the world – holds a profound truth. My students know that social action today can mean creating devices and manipulating technology to address pressing human needs.

I encourage my students to take responsibility for creating a better world and conceive, design, and construct devices that advance society. That’s their responsibility. And my job is mostly to get out of their way.

As the teacher, I’m no longer the “expert.” Instead, I’m the librarian who points students towards resources that they can use to be successful. I’m the cheerleader who encourages them to keep going in the face of failure. I’m the coach who helps them execute the big play. I am no longer a teacher. I am an enabler, a catalyst.

This paradigm marks the return of shop class, but with a 21st century technology makeover. It’s also an example of the new Curricular Makerspaces that are slowly popping up in schools nationwide.

A Curricular Makerspace combines two exceptional education movements. One is the ubiquitous STEM movement that has permeated our culture and made science and technology education a priority at many schools. But while STEM is relevant and important, it is not enough on its own, and can often be intimidating to many students.

That is where my classroom draws from another recent phenomenon – the Maker Movement, a global community of do-it-yourselfers, tinkerers and designers who are all linked by a can-do attitude and a drive to continually improve and learn more.

It is perfectly suited to schools where teachers can tap into the innate curiosity and optimism of students. It is a place where blended and problembased learning can come alive in the curriculum.

But that’s not all. It offers a space where students collaborate, create, and confidently take charge of their own learning and are empowered to contribute meaningfully to the world.

School administrators and educational philanthropists are starting to see Curricular Makerspaces as an invaluable addition to a school campus. If they are to be valuable to students and parents, Jewish day schools must be at the forefront of this important step forward in education.

First and foremost, the Curricular Makerspace centers schools on good teaching and authentic learning. We all know what good teaching looks like. Good teaching unleashes students’ innate curiosity. It encourages students to tackle rigorous academic problems and take risks. Above all else, it encourages students to be fearless and persevere in the face of failure.

Now, more than ever, this is what education must do. In his most recent book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner explains the importance of failure in innovation.

“What we’re learning about innovation,” he writes, “is the importance of failing early and failing often … failing forward, failing fast and cheap.”

He goes on to explain that instead of embracing trial and error, a necessary component of creative problem-solving, traditional education systems “penalize failure,” and as a result, “… there’s a complete contradiction between the world of schooling and the world of innovation.”

A Curricular Makerspace reconciles this contradiction. When innovation is at the heart of the curriculum, the teacher will lead students to creatively solve problems and persevere through the failure. As a result, a Curricular Makerspace produces the kind of learner who will be prepared to lead in the future – creative, innovative, and confident.

We all know the antiquated system of teacher transferring knowledge to student, and student regurgitating back to teacher, is no longer sufficient. Society needs students who are drivers of their own learning. Those are precisely the kind of students who walk out of a Curricular Makerspace.

Makerspaces are not only for schools. Our school recently joined the Cross-Lab Network (XLN), an initiative of the Reut Institute that aims to place Israel at the forefront of the emerging technological revolution of self-manufacturing and 3D printing and to do so in a socially inclusive manner. The XLN strategy deploys a network of low-cost communal maker spaces throughout Israel and now, in North America.

Curricular Makerspaces centered on STEM education, like here at Schechter Westchester, are the future of education. If Jewish funders and educators can come together to invest in and create these innovative spaces, we can encourage teachers to step out of traditional roles. We can foster students who will positively change the world. And Jewish day schools will be at the forefront of excellence in this revolutionary educational movement.

Danny Aviv, Ph.D., is the STEM Coordinator, Engineering and Entrepreneurship Director, at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester.