‘Fear less, invent more’
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‘Fear less, invent more’

Schechter seventh graders innovate adaptive technology for Israeli kids

Dr. Roberta Brandao leads a class in Schechter’s Popkin Innovation Lab in pre-covid times.
Dr. Roberta Brandao leads a class in Schechter’s Popkin Innovation Lab in pre-covid times.

When parents send their children off to school, they ask little that wasn’t asked of the Wizard of Oz. Like the Scarecrow, they want their children to be endowed with clever and adroit brains; like the Tin Woodman, caring and sensitive hearts; like the Cowardly Lion, courage; and like Dorothy, a strong connection to their home and roots.

With its robots and 3D printers, as well as more prosaic tools, the Popkin Innovation Lab at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford speaks immediately to the desire for brains.

Dr. Roberta Brandao, who runs the lab, says one of her goals is to foster students’ courage.

“Our motto is fear less, invent more,” she said. “Every child is born a fearless inventor, and education and society get that out of them. The big a-ha moment is when they realize that whatever they imagine they can build at the lab.”

And now, with a new partnership with Jerusalem’s Alyn Hospital, SSDS’s design curriculum also will connect more directly to the students’ hearts and to their roots. Alyn is Israel’s only pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation facility. It too has an innovation space, to help design solutions to the problems faced by the children it treats. In the new partnership, Schechter’s seventh-grade students have received descriptions of six real Alyn patients and the problems they face. They will focus their efforts on coming up with solutions.

Here’s one of the challenges:

Rachel is 11 years old. She is recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumor. She still loves to do all the things 11-year-olds like to do, including playing board games, hanging out with friends, and roller skating. But it is difficult for her to move or use her left hand, which means that she needs help putting her hair up in a ponytail.

The challenge: How can Rachel make a ponytail with one hand?

It of course will take brains to come up with solutions to this problem. But connecting to real people’s needs adds more heart.

That connection is a Jewish value, but it is also a core piece of design thinking, Dr. Brandao said. “In design thinking it’s very important that you understand the problem before you work on it.”

The partnership launched last month with a Zoom meeting between the school’s seventh graders and Dr. Maurit Beeri, the hospital’s director general. Since then, the students “have been working on gaining empathy for the users, and also understanding the problem,” Dr. Brandao said.

Dr. Brandao said she is teaching the students to truly understand the problem they are trying to solve by finding the motivation. “Why do the children want this?”

She gave another example, a girl named Fatima, who is in a wheelchair and can’t remove the caps from markers without assistance.

“How often does she go outside? How often does she draw? Why is this important to her? How is she going to use it and why?” The Schechter students are gaining a full understanding of the person they are trying to help — practicing empathy before they begin the process of brainstorming. Because this is a live connection with Alyn, the students are able to communicate back and forth with the hospital’s design team.

After the students design and build their solutions, the culmination of the project should be a visit to Alyn as part of their class trip to Israel. Because class trips to Israel this year seem to be as unlikely as magical ruby slippers, it’s the seventh graders who are doing the design work, in hopes that next year their eighth grade class trip will be possible and they can go to Alyn. (This year’s eighth graders are documenting the project for a virtual reality presentation.)

This is Dr. Brandao’s third year at Schechter; she went there when the lab opened. Normally, middle school students have three sessions a week of her design class; this year, with the need for smaller class sizes, they meet only twice a week. She trained as industrial designer and then went into computer graphic animation and game design. After getting her Ph.D., from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, she taught design at the college level, but soon she realized that “college was too late,” she said. “The students’ mindsets were already formed. So I started teaching in high school. I saw it was too late. Then I decided to take this job. The biggest impact is when you teach students from lower school on.”

Her third graders learn to make robots that draw. Her fourth graders make games for the first graders to play. “The eighth graders now are making mobile apps,” she said.

There are three types of thinking at play in the innovation lab, Dr. Brandao said: computational thinking, creative thinking, and design thinking. Most innovation labs or maker spaces “focus more on creative or computational thinking. Very few focus on design thinking. Design thinking is about making things better for other people. Our lab is a human-centered design lab.”

Steve Freedman, Schechter’s head of school, said that “we live in a world where most of the simple problems facing us have been solved. To solve complex issues, you have to learn to work collaboratively, you need to be constantly pushing the envelope in how you think, and you need to inquire and explore and experiment. It takes empathy to understand that there are problems that need solutions.

“Next year, God willing, our students will actually meet and present their equipment to help the various patients,” he said.

Even as Schechter wants to make this cooperation with Alyn a permanent part of its design curriculum, Alyn hopes that it will be able to replicate the venture with other schools.

“It’s a way to think about assistive technology and empathy and Jewish values around disability and doing things for others,” Deborah Rivel, director of development for American Friends of Alyn Hospital, said. “It’s kids creating for kids.”

And isn’t that always the greatest wizardry of all?

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