MakerXpo highlights day school students’ creativity, tech competency

MakerXpo highlights day school students’ creativity, tech competency

‘Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy’

Eighth-graders at Yeshivat Noam guide a Sphero through a maze.
Eighth-graders at Yeshivat Noam guide a Sphero through a maze.

The road to next week’s MakerXpo at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus began 10 years ago in Silicon Valley with the first “Maker Faire,” which billed itself as “a family-friendly festival of invention, creativity, and resourcefulness.”

From there the maker movement blossomed, leading to maker festivals around the world, including one in the White House. For the last few years there has been one in Queens, on the old World’s Fair grounds, for a weekend every fall.

The maker ethos combines old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity and hobbyist do-it-yourself-ism with the more contemporary high-tech virtues of shared creation and teaching. The implicit message comes from Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.”

The core ethos of the Maker Faire is that anything is possible. You want to build a life-sized working replica of the Mousetrap game? Go ahead, and exhibit it! You want to make music from giant bolts of lightning? Wonderful! And if you want to try something simpler, and more manageable, like learning to pick a lock or solder an electronic circuit, you can do that too.

So it’s quite appropriate that the MakerXpo is doing something that no one else has attempted: Have day schools cooperate by putting on a fair open to the general public. Nearly a dozen participating schools, from both banks of the Hudson, are creating booths with interactive activities, staffed primarily by students. Beyond the day schools, other organizations are lending support, including both the Yeshiva University and Solomon Schechter day school organizations.

Yavneh students with Little Bit electronic kits and cardboard guitars.
Yavneh students with Little Bit electronic kits and cardboard guitars.

Given that it’s taking place in a school cafeteria and gymnasium and put together primarily by students, the MakerXpo won’t have the wildest exhibits. But what it may lack in high-voltage experimentation will make up for with the hands-on enthusiasm of middle school and high school students demonstrating their projects and expertise.

The expo welcomes people 3 years old and older; some of the activities have been designed with preschoolers in mind. But there is a lot to occupy middle schoolers and high school students and their parents.

What can you expect?

A chance to play with robots; to try, fail, and then succeed in making a circuit; to learn to paint with your eyes closed, to see 3D printer technology in action.

tikvah weiner
tikvah weiner

Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck is the woman who spearheaded the show. She’s the chief academic officer at Brooklyn’s Magen David Yeshivah, the former director of educational innovation at the Frisch School in Paramus, and an activist in bringing “project-based learning” to Jewish day schools.

In 2014, she went to the New York Maker Faire with four students.

“I really loved the spirit of it, this whole carnival-like atmosphere,” she said.

The exhibits that grabbed her the most where the ones that featured people doing things. “I liked even just watching people learning to light up an LED light. There was a ‘breaker fair’ area, that had all these computer parts on the ground and you could do what you wanted to with it. There was a sense of limitless possibilities.”

Ms. Wiener is a big believer in collaboration, so it’s perhaps no surprise that when the idea came to bring a Maker Fair to the area community — after all, Shabbat and holidays make attending the October Queens fair difficult for observant Jews — she would get most of the local Jewish schools to participate. (Ironically, her own Brooklyn school’s team will be unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict.)

But given that the booths are student run and student created, the question is: How is this different from a science fair?

There’s a big difference, she said.

“In a science fair, you’re there to see the trifold poster boards. At a maker expo, you’re not just there to be lectured to. You’re also doing. It’s not about you learning about circuitry and having the student take you through the process; it’s about you actually lighting up the circuit.”

The process is the focus of what the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck is calling its “fail forward lab” at the expo.

The planning brought together the psychologists in Ma’ayanot’s guidance department with its science and technology departments in an unusual collaboration. Visitors to the lab will be challenged to build an electronic circuit with wires, paper clips, and shoelaces.

“We’re not going to give them a lot of direction,” said Orly Nadler, the school’s director of educational technology. “We want them to be challenged.”

The circuit challenge will lead to a discussion of how “iteration” — tech speak for try, tweak, and try again — “and constantly pushing forward after failure has an impact on the mind’s ability to think. We’re going to teach them some neurobiology on how when they challenge themselves and really use their brain they’re actually creating neural connections.”

At Ma’ayanot, the maker movement is reflected in a fashion technology and tinkering club. “We explore LED lights, discussing different circuits, how that applies to fashion in today’s world,” said Gila Stein, the chair of the school’s science department.

The maker movement often, but not always, goes hand in hand with what educators call STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Sometimes the arts are added to the mix, giving the acronym STEAM. Next year, Ma’ayanot’s commitment to STEAM education throughout its curriculum will be upgraded. “We’ve decided that being proficient in engineering and robotics is no longer something students can elect. This is a core literacy every student has to be proficient in. Ninth-graders next year will have a class three times a week where they will be covering robotics, coding, fundamentals of engineering.”

Robotics for ninth- graders?

Yavneh students prepare electronic guitars for the MakerXpo.
Yavneh students prepare electronic guitars for the MakerXpo.

With fully programmable miniature robotic cars selling for the price of a high school calculator, the idea isn’t so outlandish.

The Yavneh Academy in Paramus is opening up its cafeteria and gymnasium for the MakerXpo. Last year, it set aside a classroom as a maker space for its middle schoolers. The idea was that they could come during their free time — lunch and recess — and create. It proved so popular that kids had to sign up in advance. Enthusiastic students have taken over management of the space.

The Yavneh maker space shows that while 3D printers and laser cutters are nice to have, they aren’t necessary to spark creativity and exploration.

One table featured a computer that kids could take apart and put back together. Another had kits where students could experiment with electronic circuits.

Other tables were lower tech. There was one featuring cardboard, and another with different kinds of decorating tape.

“The incredible thing is that what we would just see as materials, the students would envision into creation,” Chani Lichtiger, the school’s director of educational technology, said. “They created swords and wallets and jewelry out of the cardboard and tape. It was remarkable to see.”

At the expo, Yavneh students will be facilitating projects that combine electronics with arts and crafts. One booth will have participants decorate cardboard cutouts of guitars — and then assemble circuits that create electronic music when the guitar strings are moved.

In Englewood, the Moriah School is preparing projects for the expo that involve the sense of sight, according to Lisa Fusco, the school’s director of educational technology and innovation.

In one booth, Moriah students will work with visitors to demonstrate the rather unusual skill of learning to paint without seeing. The expo guests will wear blindfolds in a booth modeled on the experience of an artist named John Bramblitt, who taught himself to paint after he lost his vision.

“I showed a video about him to my students, and said we’ve got to stop thinking that blind people don’t have skills,” Ms. Fusco said.

She said that Mr. Bramblitt paints by creating outlines of the work with glue. He uses his fingers to mix the paint, and since the texture of each color of paint is a little different, he is able to paint with his fingers.

“It’s quite fascinating,” she said.

She promised that the Expo version of this will be “very tactile and very cool.”

Yosef Morrison, 14, an eighth-grader from Bergenfield, explained the school’s second entry in the Expo.

“We’re designing a walking stick that uses infrared technology to signal to a blind person when the motion of a car is coming. It will vibrate so the person will know when to stop,” he said.

With a week and a half to go, “we’re still in the design stage,” he said.

He’s working with two other students, Yaron Gerszberg and Morgan Lazarus. They’re consulting with an engineer on the infrared technology and motion detectors. “We’re trying to make it so you can see the wires and how it works, and how you can build this,” he said. The three of them are working on this during lunch time.

“It’s a great learning experience,” he said.

For Ms. Fusco, working on the MakerXpo highlights the school’s focus on inquiry-based, student-centered education.

Ma’ayanot students show off circuit projects.
Ma’ayanot students show off circuit projects.

“This is the best form of learning,” she said. “It engages the student more wholly, not only their mind but their passion. From that point of view, there’s no replacing building something. All of us can remember playing with Tinker toys or Legos. Those toys were ways of learning how to do things.”

These ideas are integrated into the middle school science program, which now has an engineering component, she said. “Students have built bridges, hover cars, and roller coasters.”

At the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Rabbi Dov Hochbaum, one of the school’s educational technologists, wanted to approach the expo’s challenge from a different angle. “We’re going to be depicting something that’s more in the humanities or Judaic studies realm, and connect that to the STEM of the maker space,” he said.

The STEM side will come from using two kits of easy-to-use electronics. Little Bits are brightly colored snap-together electronic modules. Makey Makey turns ordinary objects into computer input devices. “If you connect it to a banana, say, you can squeeze the banana and have it serve as a key on your computer,” Rabbi Hochbaum said.

Expo visitors will be challenged to build things with these kits that go along with different scenarios the RNYJ students are learning in their Talmud classes. “If they’re learning about finding things in the street and having to locate the owner, they can depict a robot that is going around the city,” he said.

At Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, Barbara Sehgal, who heads the middle school science program, is planning several activities for the expo, ranging from robots to play dough. Not just any play dough, mind you, but homemade play dough with extra salt — which, she said, lets it generate electricity. Plug in a small LED for a light, and you can have a monster or rainbow or happy face that lights up.

The robots, too, promise to be adorable. One display will feature something called a Sphero, a programmable robot sphere a bit bigger than a softball. “We’re going to have a very large track and several Spheros going,” Ms. Sehgal said. “Kids can program them and see if their codes are working. It’s something first-time users can get the hang of quickly.”

Ozobots are simpler to program. “Think of R2D2 without the legs, an inch and a half tall,” she said. As they roll along, they can sense a change in color. You can program them with magic markers. “If you want your bot to turn around, draw these colors. If you want it to shake, draw those colors,” she said.

These are only some of the planned happenings. Ms. Wiener said visitors should allow at least two hours to take it all in and take part. She hopes the fair will generate enthusiasm for making and creativity among the students and parents who visit — and the schools that take part.

In many ways, she said this sort of education reflects real life better than the teach-to-the-test curricula she derides as “drill, kill, bubble-fill.”

“If we think about what we do in life, so much is process oriented,” she said. “If I made that meal but didn’t like the way the string beans came out, I’m going to try a little fix the next time.

“The Maker Faire was about there not being one right answer. There are multiple possibilities for what you can create. I want school to be like that, where a kid says, what if I try something new and figure it out until I got good at it? There’s this sort of explode-the-chemistry-set-break-the-rules mentality at the Maker Faire, which makes you wonder: What do we lose when we tell kids there’s only one right answer?

“A lot of times in school, students will say ‘I don’t want to raise my hand because I’m afraid of being wrong.

“Here it’s not about being wrong, it’s about the process, about learning even if you don’t have the right answer yet. It’s a really healthy notion that life is about a process of learning instead of a right or wrong answer. There’s a confidence and kind of perseverance you can develop if you’re not afraid to try, fail, and iterate.”

What: MakerXpo
Where: Yavneh Academy, 155 North Farview Ave., Paramus
When: Sunday, March 6, 11 a.m. to
5 p.m.
Tickets: $10 children, $15 adults, $48.47 family
Purchase tickets at:

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