The STEAM Innovation Lab is just the beginning of technological opportunities for students at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
Among the ambient sounds of students chattering and studying, gears and gadgets are humming and ringing inside a second-floor classroom at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.
A half-dozen 3-D printers buzz and whirr in the background within the bright blue walls of Barrack’s new STEAM Innovation Lab. Mechanical LEGO-like gears and batteries are hung in drawers on the walls or scattered aimlessly about tables, desks and floors for students’ projects.
And that is just the beginning of innovative opportunities for students in the program.
The STEAM program, which refers to the study of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, has been in effect since Sept. 1. Students can take core science classes or electives in the areas of engineering, coding, robotics and electronics.
Head of School Sharon Levin said the program “came to fruition over the summer, but it’s something we had been talking about for at least a year prior. Once we decided to move forward with it, we really hit the ground running.”
Other teachers are taking advantage of the new space, too, and incorporating the technology and available 3-D printers into their math, art and Jewish studies classes.
Levin said the lab is a creative, cooperative and collaborative space for all students — sixth- through 12th-graders — to learn from.
“About a third of our student body” — 380 students in total — “has been directly exposed to this,” Levin noted. “And that’s only because it just started this year. So we will have a much larger choice of electives across grades next year,” including more from art and a course combining music and physics.
Eventually, Levin explained, some of these engineering courses will become required for students — she emphasized that this is a necessity.
“This is my 30th year here, and I think we still are a school that values critical thinking and cooperative learning,” she said. “But I think today, if you look at young people in their 20s and 30s who go out into the workforce, not only do they have to be very technologically adept, but they work as a team.”
The school held a national search to find the best teacher for the job, and Levin enthusiastically chose Arthur Maiman as the STEAM director.
“The space is all about kids learning in a very different way,” Maiman said. “It’s hands-on learning. It’s building things and designing things and creating things.
“I’m hoping they will find a new way to learn about things that excite them. They have another space where they can come in and, in a very relaxed way, learn. They can learn about technology that’s fairly advanced in a very unintimidating setting. It doesn’t look like they have to sit here and look through this giant textbook to understand programming. Instead, they can look at other people’s codes and manipulate them, and pretty soon create their own code — but do it in a way that’s not forced on them.”
Students in other courses have used the technology to 3-D print different-sized shapes to study geometry, or print an object that is meaningful to them for the Jewish studies unit on holiness.
The classroom was gutted and renovated over the summer at a cost of $125,000, according to Alex Stroker, the school’s chief operating and development officer.
That total included about $30,000 to $40,000 in construction costs, about $50,000 for equipment, another $15,000 for laptops and software, and an additional $20,000 in educational materials.
Maiman was also directly involved with the renovations. After receiving a $60,000 estimate just for furniture in the new space, he personally shopped around for new tables, chairs and cabinets.
He ended up finding moveable pieces at Home Depot for about $12,000, which allows students to transform the room depending on whatever project they are working on.
The lab also received a $25,000 grant from the Lasko Family Foundation. They will continue to apply for that grant each year while relying on other private donors as well.
Eventually, Levin foresees another STEAM professional in the lab with the rise in student interest, increase in courses and ongoing costs of maintaining the lab.
She added that they even had to turn some students away from the electives this semester because they filled up so fast.
“Years ago, kids who would hang out in a lab space like this would be considered the ‘tech geeks.’ But now it’s become the norm, very popular,” she explained.
In the older grades, boys outnumber the girls by a handful, but for the middle schoolers, interest in the program and technology is split 50-50.
“As the program continues to grow, we expect the percentage of girls participating will continue to grow,” Maiman predicted. “They’ll come in here younger and get involved younger, and that’s really why we have this type of space.”
In addition to classes, many students come into the lab during their free periods.
Several came in to continue developing their Rube Goldberg machine for an international contest for Jewish day schools. (A Rube Goldberg machine is an apparatus that completes a simple task in a very complicated manner.)
For the competition, Barrack’s team designed a Passover-themed machine, complete with a baby Moses.
Sponsored by the Jewish day school nonprofit RAVSAK and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, the Barrack team will compete against 40 other Jewish day schools around the world.
“The real objective, aside from getting involved with these international-type competitions, is really just to provide a space for kids who really didn’t have a place to be before,” Maiman added. “Kids who were very tech-savvy, all they had was a little computer lab area. They didn’t have a place where they could create with technology. And that’s what we’re offering to them.”
Stefanie Gorson-Marrow, for example, works in the lab every day.
“It was really my first time doing anything with engineering,” she said.
The 18-year-old senior, who is set to go to Arcadia University in the fall, is looking forward to synthesizing what she learned in engineering with her love of graphic design.
David Treatman also combined his love of science with another passion: theater.
The 18-year-old senior recently directed the play, The 39 Steps, at school. Thanks to his engineering know-how, he was able to help create 367 props and set pieces and about 400 sound effects.
Treatman also revived the engineering club when he was a sixth-grader. He feels comfortable graduating now that the STEAM program is in place.
“The STEAM program just completely transformed science in this school in a way that I really love,” he said, in which he was able to 3-D print a guitar and ukulele for himself, among other items, thanks to help and materials provided by Maiman.
Before the STEAM program, the engineering club was a small group with limited resources, with Treatman at the helm as president and his friend, Avi Zeff, as vice president.
“Last year, we couldn’t even find screwdrivers when we were trying to build a go-kart,” Treatman laughed.
Now, Zeff, a 17-year-old senior, was able to 3-D print a vertical Passover seder plate with pop-out Hebrew-labeled plates.
“This year, we’ve had pretty much every supply and support we could need,” Treatman said. “So it’s been a huge transition. It’s really a great environment to work in because we’ve got every kind of tool you can possibly need.”