If three high school boys put many months of work into tricking out a walker — not a bike, a walker — you know there has to be a mighty strong motivation pushing the project along.
For Justin Sohn, Izzy Selter, and Harry Kramer, all students at the Frisch School in Paramus, that motivation was a strong interest in engineering, combined with the tools to create a useful health-related product. The interest was innate; the tools came courtesy of CIJE-Tech, a discovery-focused interactive curriculum for Jewish high schools including Frisch, developed in collaboration with the Israel Sci-Tech network of schools and New York-based Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education.
CIJE-Tech offers a year each of scientific and biomedical engineering geared to introducing a diverse range of science and technical knowledge while encouraging multidisciplinary and abstract thinking as well as leadership and teamwork skills. CIJE also provides intensive teacher training and mentoring and it also gives students laboratory equipment.
At the end of May, all 100 Frisch students in Rifkie Silverman’s CIJE-Tech classes presented their three-person projects at a science symposium that packed the Paramus school’s cafeteria. The symposium also featured posters describing college-level bioresearch by 25 juniors in Dr. Mindy Furman’s elective course through the Waksman Student Scholars Program at Rutgers University.
“The projects encompassed researching a problem to solve, finding out what else is out there to solve that problem, and researching the parts for making a prototype product,” Ms. Silverman said. “Working in threes, the students are given a budget. We order the parts and then they have to look up schematics and figure out how to use the microcontroller to read the parts. Every project uses sensors to gather info from the environment and process that information and do something useful with it.”
“Our project was a smart walker,” said Justin, a sophomore from Englewood. “We did a lot of research and there were no tricked-out walkers on the market to enhance quality of life. People using walkers can’t always see what’s on the ground and don’t want to be looking down constantly. So we calculated the distance between the walker and the next object in front of it, and if that object is within four inches the walker vibrates, indicating there’s something ahead. Another feature was pressure sensors on the handles, displaying how much pressure is being applied from each hand.
“Too much could lead to scoliosis, or off-balance pressure could lead to falling,” Justin explained.
In addition, every group was required to design and make something using a part printed on the school’s 3D printer. “Ours was a pillbox with three compartments for morning, noon and evening, and at the correct time that section would light up,” Justin said. “We found existing pillboxes that made noise, but none that light up.”
Bracha Getter, a Fair Lawn sophomore, and two other 10th-graders created a high-tech glove that transmits sign-language gestures onto an LCD screen. “One of my group partners was learning sign language, and I have a friend whose sister is deaf and I’ve learned a few words in sign language,” she said.
Bracha also worked with two seniors to build a “Shabbos lock” to bypass the problem of hotel room doors that open electronically. Strictly Sabbath-observant travelers need a workaround solution, because the direct use of electricity is forbidden. “If you’re in the hallway near your room and your key is in Shabbos mode, it will lock and unlock your door automatically, and in regular mode you can open the door with the click of a button,” Bracha said.
The latter project was inspired not only by a practical need but also by Frisch’s launch of a guided independent-study elective in cooperation with Israel’s nonprofit Zomet Institute, which designs high-tech solutions for modern needs within the boundaries of Jewish law — such as telephones, pens, and keyboards for medical personnel that do not violate Sabbath restrictions on writing and electricity.
Frisch students who chose to design prototypes of Sabbath-compliant devices received feedback from Zomet engineers, and the institute’s Rabbi Binyamin Zimmerman came to speak to them about the institute’s work.
“A huge component of my engineering program is contact with professionals in action,” Ms. Silverman said. “I invite parents, alumni, and friends to speak about everything from intellectual property laws to animation engineering, computer science, and telecommunications. We observe live robotic surgery at NYU Medical Center. We take a trip to Google to see their engineers at work.”
Bergenfield freshman Benjamin Katz said he took the course because his older brother recommended it, and went in without any knowledge of coding. “Toward the end we were pretty good at it,” he said.
For his project, he and Gregory Presser and Zechariah Hahn rigged up a joystick that allows a user to draw on paper. Pressing different buttons on the stick produces different colors. Like everyone else, they had to deal with some glitches — a motor that wasn’t powerful enough, a joystick that broke — but it’s all part of the learning experience. “I’ve learned more in engineering than in any other subject this year,” Benjamin said.
Frisch started a branch of the international Girls Who Code club, mindful of the White House Office on Science and Technology’s goal to encourage more girls to pursue careers in the so-called STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Dr. Furman’s bioinformatics elective includes nine female and 16 male juniors. Nicole Aranoff of Teaneck said she was always interested in biology and liked the idea of a challenge. “I learned so much and it really broadened my horizons,” she said. “I think the course has opened me to the idea of possibly continuing in some sort of scientific research.”
The Waksman Student Scholars Program engages high school students in an authentic research project. “They acquire their own original data and have it published for use by scientists all over the world,” Dr. Furman said.
The class researched duckweed, a plant with potential to be used as a biofuel and a water purifier. “But we don’t know a lot about the genomes and proteins it codes for,” she said. “Rutgers prepared a library containing pieces of the duckweed genome and they sent us those pieces of DNA cloned into bacteria. The project involves growing the bacteria and making many copies, then studying the gene you’ve isolated. The kids are involved in all the aspects of growing the colonies with techniques they would learn in a molecular biology class in college, with a very sophisticated set of lab techniques.
“Once they purify the DNA, we send it back to Rutgers and they return the sequence. The kids use a computer program developed by Rutgers to analyze the DNA sequences and determine whether each sequence codes for a protein and what that protein might do in similar organisms and in duckweed. When they figure out what they have, they get their sequences published in the national center for bioinformatics where scientists all over the world upload their data for comparison.”
For the symposium, each student chose one particularly interesting sequence and made a poster like those exhibited at professional scientific conferences.
“Seeing the whole thing come together into one presentation was very, very cool,” said Nicole, who had never heard of duckweed before Dr. Furman’s class.
Gabriel Dardik of Livingston said he learned three main skills from the course. “First, I learned how to actually do science, starting an experiment and carrying it out to the end and interpreting the data. Second, I learned how to figure out what went wrong when something goes wrong. And the third is teamwork.” Gabriel said he wants to do a summer internship in research “because I loved the class so much.”
Zachary Abraham of Teaneck took the engineering elective in ninth and 10th grade. “I enjoyed it a lot, so bioresearch seemed like another way, instead of building a project, to do real science. And this bioresearch class opened my eyes to a new way of looking at science.” He will be in the summer program at the Governor’s School of Engineering and Technology at Rutgers.
Frisch was one of the first schools to join the nationwide pilot of the CIJE-Tech program four years ago. Engineering was added to other electives — foreign language, music, and art — from which incoming freshman may choose.
“We started with 14 10th graders, and now we have over 100 students in the program,” Ms. Silverman said. “It’s a four-day-a-week part of their curriculum, and it’s now a two-year program. In the second year, there is more of a biomedical engineering thrust. It’s incredibly eye-opening and inspiring. Their projects are quite sophisticated in terms of programming and circuitry.”