Three girls huddled around a three-panel display board plastered with information about their final project: the wireless headphone. They took turns demonstrating it to fellow students who listened to the sound of pre-programmed notes of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” — sans Bluetooth.
“This helps our society,” said Yehudit Kaszirer, part of a team of three freshmen from Valley Torah High School in Valley Village who developed the white, wireless headphones as part of a capstone project. “Wires get tangled up, and people don’t keep their eyes on the road. This is wireless, so we are preventing accidents.”
The Kellerman Gymnasium at YULA Girls High School was filled with such inventions — vibrating pillows, heated jackets and bike cyclometers — and students showing them off to other teams, teachers, parents and judges as part of the Young Engineers Conference on May 15.
Kaszirer, along with her teammates Shira Ardestani and Rochel Leah Raskin, were part of the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE) Tech High School Engineering Program, a curriculum that launched during the 2013-2014 school year at eight high schools in Southern California. This was their chance to show off their capstone projects from the past semester.
“The mission of CIJE is to help enhance the secular studies education at Jewish day schools no matter what denomination it is. It’s to prepare the children who are attending those schools for the challenges of the 21st century in terms of careers, skills and learning,” said Judy Lebovits, vice president and director of CIJE, which is based in New York. “We feel that not only are we preparing these children, but there are many children who may have not normally gone to Jewish day schools because this course does not exist.”
Within these CIJE-sponsored classes, students are exposed to a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Program (STEM) that enables them to tackle issues in those subject areas. Many students and teachers were hesitant about the curriculum before beginning the school year, unsure of what to expect.
“At first I thought I wouldn’t like the CIJE program — I’m not really into doing things like that — but once I started doing it, once I saw it was easy, and once I got the hang of everything, I really enjoyed it, and I want to do more,” Ardestani said. “It was just a good feeling of accomplishment.”
Teachers were experiencing the program for the first time alongside their students. They attended two separate trainings, in Israel and New York, to prepare for the new syllabus.
“I was pretty scared and overwhelmed,” said Heidi Theisen, teacher of Foundations of Engineering at Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School in Irvine, “but the training made us feel a lot better.”
After a year with CIJE’s curriculum, there was visible growth among the students in terms of the newly acquired skills, she said.
“The kids learned a lot. It was more than just learning programming and electricity; they learned about building something,” Theisen said. “They learned so much about projects and just the entire engineering process.”
CIJE stresses problem solving, reasoning skills and innovation. A major part is the capstone project.
“It gives young kids like us the opportunity to pursue doing what we like and engineering, which you don’t [usually] get the option of doing, so I really like it,” Raskin said. “It’s cool. It gives us a chance.”
Her teammate shared a similar view of the CIJE program.
“You don’t know you like something until you try it,” Ardestani said.
Yacov Jaques Ohana, father of two students at the conference, called the program “phenomenal.”
“I cannot thank [CIJE] enough, what these guys are doing finally to bring this to Jewish school and, hopefully, get them in technology,” he said.
The program plans to continue next year at the current schools, and possibly add more, according to Lebovits.
All of the projects on display at the recent Young Engineers Conference got their start in a classroom setting — and more is yet to come. Next year, students will move forward to the next phase of the CIJE curriculum, depending on their grade level, as they focus on a different area of technology each academic year.
For participants like Kaszirer, it’s been a great feeling so far.
“You are given a chance to just be creative and to just go all out, and by doing this it almost makes you feel like you’re Superman, like you can do anything you absolutely want to.”