Creators, Thinkers, and Inventors: STEM in our Synagogue Learning Community

April 2, 2021Alison Weikel and Jacob Paikoff

As the STEM educator and director of education, respectively, at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA, we’re sharing reflections on introducing STEM to Jewish learners in our building pre-COVID and in our online learning community.

Jacob Paikoff, STEM Educator:

Religion and science are usually presented in opposition to each other, but in Judaism, they go hand in hand. Science prompts questions about lived experience and Judaism can provide a guide. Judaism presents ancient, mythical stories and science offers a lens through which to understand them. Further, Judaism and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) share two foundational values. 

First, both value questions. Judaism thrives on big questions, and we are encouraged – at all ages – to take ownership of our learning through asking why and how stories passed down through generations influence our lives today. In STEM, the scientific method begins with a question or hypothesis that researchers set out to answer. Technology and engineering ask, "What can we do to create more efficient and effective solutions?" Math offers language to find answers for our questions of quantifiable values, such as the speed of light, pressure of gravity, or size of a planet. 

Second, both STEM and Judaism rely deeply on community. Peer-reviewed science is deemed the highest value research, and researchers look to their colleagues for new ideas, feedback, and assessment. They know the Jewish concept that we become more knowledgeable through interaction with others, which is why Jewish learning so often takes place in group settings like synagogue schools.

Alison Weikel, Director of Education:

At Temple Shir Tikva, our work to redesign K-12 learning included qualitative data gathered from the learners themselves. Through a participatory action research process called Group Level Understanding (GLU) we listened to the learners’ stories of their experiences and what they wanted from their Jewish learning. We also listened to parents, teachers, synagogue leaders, and other stakeholders.

Our Think Team embraced the data from all of these sources, defined the values in the data, and reframed traditional notions around content. We asked: What experiences might we invite learners to have? What other people might we introduce them to? What connections can they make to Judaism that they may not have made before? And how might this experience be relevant in their lives outside the doors of our synagogue?

In planning for the 2019-2020 school year, although our data did not explicitly show that science content needed to be part of our curriculum, we heard that the learners craved hands-on activities, time with their friends, and a playground to explore, collaborate, question, and define their Judaism. It sounded like STEM to us!

Jacob:

During the 19-20 school year, third through sixth graders had the chance to build, explore, and discover, starting each experience by discussing a Jewish value and a related Jewish story before jumping into the experiment of the day. For example, I paired the Tower of Babel story and the value of patience, or savlanut. The introductory activator provided an excellent foundation for the experiment so when learners got their hands on the materials, they could place themselves in the Jewish story to cooperate and communicate like the biblical characters attempting to build the tower.

Our youngest learners had a few “Taste of STEM” sessions so they could experience the wonder and joy of this learning – a preview of more regular STEM learning as they get older. Seventh through twelfth graders had the chance to choose electives like Engineering Values and Entrepreneurship. Both classes allowed the students to take a deeper look at STEM and experiment with more advanced projects like balsa wood bridges and partner work creating startup businesses.

While the experiments and activities have instructions and a goal for understanding, by design, they rarely have right or wrong answers. Rather than specific outcomes that allow only some people to succeed, our activities offer paths to creativity, experimentation, and connection, and give us the opportunity to help kids discover how they learn. After each STEM unit, I asked for student feedback, which not only continued to give the learners voice in their experience, but also provided data to create the next unit.

Alison and Jacob:

When we decided the 20-21 program would be online, we knew that continuing to offer STEM experiences would be one of the keys to differentiating the Zoom experience for our learners. By using easily obtained, household materials we are reinforcing the joy we can experience from simple, found objects.

We refocused our learning program to be entirely about needs, and we are using middot (character traits) as a frame for learning about ourselves, each other, Jewish stories, holidays, and prayer, with STEM as an essential part of the experience. As the learners consider a new middah each month, STEM activities such as creating fractal patterns for k’dushah (holiness) and solving logic puzzles for savlanut create entry points for new perspectives and deeper understanding. One of the benefits of a Zoom school is that we have been able to engage all learners in grades K-6 in these STEM activities every month with each middah.

What’s next? Including all the learners in grades K-6 adds a second set of data as we plan for the fall. By rethinking what STEM could look like in our online learning community, we modeled the type of flexible, creative thinking in which we ask our students to engage, and we know our learners value the opportunity to experiment and collaborate, whether in person or online. 

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