Inventor teaches robotics and also self-esteem
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Inventor teaches robotics and also self-esteem

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Simon Engelsohn and his classmates look forward to learning about robotics from Steven Paley. Courtesy Sinai Schools

Other entrepreneurs fortunate enough to sell their business and retire by middle age, would opt to whittle away their time on the golf course or at the opera house.

Not Steven Paley. For the past seven years, the retired Paramus resident has spent several days a week at the Sinai School teaching a robotics course to special-needs students.

“I was lucky enough to be successful in business and wanted to do something to give back,” said Paley, the former CEO of The Texwipe Company, and the father of four.

A product design engineer, Paley decided to combine his passion for the sciences with his desire to help special-needs children.

Several years ago, Paley created a program called ARISE® (Applied Robotics Instruction for Special Education), a curriculum designed to teach robotics and engineering skills to special-needs students. The courses are hands-on, and the students build and program their own robots. When he presented his concept to administrators at Sinai several years ago, “their immediate reaction was that they had to have that class in the school,” he recalled.

And so began Paley’s second career. Only this time, his job would be unpaid. But the ultimate payoff, he says, is priceless.

His students – who range in diagnosis from Down syndrome to autism spectrum disorder – have such a good time in his class, they don’t realize how much they are learning, he said.

He generally teaches students in grades five to eight and has also taught high-schoolers.

“They love it. They can’t wait till I come to class,” he said. “They are so enthusiastic and call my name so many times I told them I’d have to go into the witness protection program.”

Simon Engelsohn’s response is typical. “I like robotics with Mr. Paley,” he said, “because we get to build all of these different types of robots. Now we are working on an ‘Explorerbot.’ It can identify colors, talk, and detect walls and things.”

At the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, which hosts Sinai students, they breeze down the hall happily in anticipation of Paley’s class, which is considered a highlight of their schedule, said staff.

“Beyond being highly motivating and engaging, it serves as a catalyst for emotional and social growth,” said Rabbi Yisrael Rothwachs, director of Sinai at RYNJ. “Mr. Paley has developed a curriculum that, beyond exposing the students to concepts in physics and computer programming, directly targets skills related to problem-solving, teamwork, and frustration tolerance. Perhaps most importantly, they learn to appreciate that learning is a process, not a product.”

But the class is no easy A. The students work hard. Nevertheless, they have tremendous motivation because robots are cool, said Paley. “The hands-on learning and satisfaction they get from building a working robot are immeasurable.”

Paley ends up providing his charges with a lesson far more valuable than how to make a robot: with the art of success. “I give them a difficult task and show them that they can complete it. I try to give them the confidence that they can meet tough challenges.”

By the end of the course, students have learned to program their robots to perform various tasks, including making their robots sing, dance, and navigate a maze using infrared sensors. One of the final projects is a robot sumo wrestling match in which the students program their “Sumobots” to find the opposing robot and push it out of the sumo ring.

Paley summed up: “Often, the confidence and self-esteem of special-needs students is very low. The essence of my courses is to facilitate the belief that they can achieve success. The idea that they can do something they did not think possible builds tremendous self-esteem. The hope is that they carry this experience onto other challenges in their lives.”

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