Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The STEM Lab at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS) in Livingston, NJ, was buzzing with activity this summer. It just saw the completion of the inaugural year of the “Maker Experience,” a summer intensive science and engineering training program for high school students throughout northern New Jersey.

The month-long, six-hour daily program provided students with intensive training in problem solving, as well as gateway skills in computer programming, electronics and circuitry, working with microcontrollers, and math.

Taking a “one-room schoolhouse” approach, the program gathered students with a wide range of backgrounds, many starting with absolutely no background in electronics, circuitry or programming.

Using a mix of guided and independent work, each student started the program with a simple project, such as creating a circuit that could charge a cell phone on an AA battery. They quickly moved on to the main focus of their summer work: identifying a particular real world “problem” and devising a concrete, scientific/engineering solution to it. Students then performed a great deal of research and experimentation, and finally created a solution and made a functional device to solve their chosen problem.

“Even though the students were working individually, the atmosphere of the lab, the structure of the program and the close working relationship with mentor-instructors all fostered collaboration, brainstorming and interaction among the students. They really gelled together to form a broader team—a real collaborative group—even though they were all working on different projects and using different technologies,” according to Dr. Steven Stein, Maker Experience Program Director and RKYHS science department chair. “They worked as scientists and engineers in the truest sense. They also regularly had to present their work to peers, visitors and in formal presentations, which pushed a greater understanding of their work and poise in presentation.”

The projects were impressive, including an EpiPen case that automatically sends a text message with GPS coordinates to 911 and designated contacts upon use; a user-friendly thermocycler (DNA copy machine) that makes advanced molecular genetics work widely accessible; a wireless, automatic ice-depth-determining safety device; an automated, motion- and light-sensing lighting device; an EMG-based robotic arm for remote movement based on a user’s muscle electrical activity; a mechanical and passive energy-based electrical generator; a facial recognition-based authorization and breathalyzer to identify authorized users and ensure sober driving; a solar-powered device to extract pure water from the atmosphere for use in arid climates or where clean water is needed; and identification of genetic variants among family members associated with an X-linked recessive genetic disease.

“This is a program where the students are learning science by doing science, and we are teaching the kids how to figure out how to figure it out,” said Stein. “It’s invention, innovation and problem solving, and really creative. The kids had a lot of fun doing it and a great sense of accomplishment.”

The students had the opportunity to work with what Stein called a “Dream Team” of mentor-instructors: all computer science and engineering students at top colleges and all recent RKYHS graduates. The mentor-instructors, Sammy Cherna, Jonathan Pedoeem and Jacob Stein, worked closely and individually with each of the students, sharing their wide-ranging expertise and helping to troubleshoot and provide guidance on the students’ research, design and project development.

Sammy Cherna is a student at MIT, studying electrical engineering and computer science, has worked as a programmer since the 11th grade, and was a founder of the Kushner Engineering club. Jonathan Pedoeem is an electrical engineering student at Cooper Union and a tech enthusiast with a penchant for taking any- and everything apart. Jacob Stein is a computer science student at the University of Chicago, who has researched elastic turbulent flow in the Department of Complex Physics at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, and, during high school, created and published a number of mobile apps for Android devices totaling over 150,000 users. While in high school, the three regularly competed as a team in hack-a-thon competitions around the region, collaborative events that involved programming for 24-48 hours straight.

The program is overseen by Dr. Stein, RKYHS science department chair, who holds undergraduate and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago, and coordinated by Ms. Deborah Hunter, math department chair.

“The students related so well to the mentor-instructors and formed long-term bonds, that I expect they will maintain these relationships for years to come,” said Stein. ““The mentor-instructors are really the core of the program, meeting each student at their individual level and helping each student reach their goal.”

Based on this year’s unqualified success, Stein says they look forward to expanding and enhancing the program next year.

The Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School has incorporated an extensive STEM program into its regular science curriculum of classic offerings in biology, chemistry and physics, adding courses in coding to freshmen, scientific engineering to sophomores, genetic engineering to juniors and biomedical engineering to seniors, with additional courses in bioethics, robotics and advanced computer science.