Local kids get with ‘STEM’

Fifth-graders at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville sit in the brand new iLab as their teacher, Alexis Soffler, talks about the experiment they are about to conduct. Photo credit: Suzanne Pollak.
First-graders at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville sit in the brand new iLab as their teacher, Alexis Soffler, talks about the experiment they are about to conduct. Photo credit: Suzanne Pollak.

Later this month, sixth- through eighth-grade students at Gesher Jewish Day School will walk along the Key Bridge and, using their best STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – skills, design a better way to handle the traffic that runs over the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., into Virginia.

“This is a real world problem that engineers have to deal with,” said Sherri Kohr, the school’s STEM coordinator. “Maybe one of our students may come up with a solution that may solve the traffic problems of Northern Virginia. Who knows?”

While the older students are trying to solve something that has plagued traffic engineers for years, children in kindergarten through second grade will be working on a bridge strong enough to carry the three billy goats gruff and third- through fifth-graders will be challenged to build a bridge that holds the most weight.

Students throughout the Washington, D.C., area are gaining both the knowledge and hands-on decision-making abilities that are expected to prepare them both for college and the working world. The federal Next Generation Science Standards, which were adopted in April 2013, include performance expectations for students that are being met here at various schools in STEM labs and classrooms.


According to the U.S. Department of Education, from 2010 to 2020, jobs related to STEM, including computer systems analysts, medical scientists and biomedical engineers will increase greatly yet in 2010, only 16 percent of American high school seniors were proficient in math as well as interested in a STEM career. Enter the brand new Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School iLab, whose ribbon cutting was to have taken place yesterday.

The lab at the lower school features a 3D printer, Lego robotics, digital microscopes, water rockets, circuitry boards, challenge boxes and computers for learning to code. “STEM has been starting at the university level down to the high school level. Here, we will be doing it down to preschool,” said Laurie Ehrlich, the school’s director of marketing and communications. In the lab, the basic school model will be flipped. Rather than students learning during the day and later that day reviewing the information through homework, now they will be given a problem “with the teacher sitting beside them as a partner instead of in front of the classroom,” explained Alexis Soffler, the Rockville school’s STEM specialist.

While fifth- and sixth-graders will be using the iLab on a regular basis, it also will be a place for teachers and others to try out new ideas and a home for STEM-based clubs.

Over at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, a STEM room was opened during the last school year. But at JPDS-NC, it is referred to as STEAM as there is an arts component as well. While there is a specific science lab, the school aims to incorporate STEAM in all areas of teaching, explained Naomi Reem, head of school.

The goal is to teach reading, writing, technology, building, engineering, problem solving, learning, observing, sketching and comparing throughout the day, she said. Fifth-graders will have an invention convention where they will solve an everyday problem. Last year, one student designed a way for a teacher to stop having squishy fruit in a lunchbox while another worked out a pulley system to remove blankets, thereby making sure the student woke up on time.

The Sela Public Charter School in the District, which immerses its students in Hebrew, held a ribbon cutting in August for its new STEM room, playground and outdoor garden.

The students will be composting and using a rain catcher to water the vegetables they grow. Inside the lab, they will be measuring, using microscopes and a 3D printer and spending time at a build-and-take-apart station, said Alicia Jefferson, whose 5-year-old twins attend kindergarten there. They also will be learning about the life cycle of frogs and how to use basic machines. Not only will the students be learning about clouds and the weather, but also how weather affects them, Jefferson said.

Educators at each of the schools aim to teach their students new concepts with an emphasis on the students creating “their own solutions without the teachers always saying this is step one, step two,” said Gesher’s Kohr. “Our kids are learning hands on, they are learning to be problem solvers,” she said. While a hands-on approach has always been stressed at Gesher, “the difference with STEM learning is that STEM really puts the onus on the students,” she said.

This year, students at Gesher will be not just erecting a sukkah but actually designing one, with the only ground rule that it satisfy religious requirements. They also will be studying their ancestors and then creating a 3D family tree, Kohr said. “Day schools very much want to be competitive with public schools. We want our kids to be competitive in the real world,” she said.

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