One robot, unassembled. Go learn.

One robot, unassembled. Go learn.

Jewish day school students gear up for tournament competition

Above and below, day school students have fun at the CIJE Robotics League tournament. (All photos courtesy CIJE)
Above and below, day school students have fun at the CIJE Robotics League tournament. (All photos courtesy CIJE)

For the fifth year in a row, students from more than 30 Jewish elementary, middle, and high schools in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan region will participate in the annual Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education’s VEX Robotics League Championship Tournament.

The tournament will be held April 1 at Nike Track & Field Center at the Armory in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan.

“Our robotics league has become the fastest growing program in Jewish day schools,” Adam Jerozolim, CIJE’s director of curriculum development, said. “Our aim is to keep Jewish day schools and high schools on the leading edge of K-12 STEM education.” (STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math.)

Mr. Jerozolim’s academic background includes a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the City College of New York and a master’s in mechanical engineering from NYU. His two years of professional experience with General Dynamics Electric Boat, a Connecticut-based defense contractor that builds nuclear submarines for the Navy, gives him a unique, hands-on scientific perspective that he brings to the schools that CIJE serves.

“Children are dying for hands-on learning,” he said. “They want authentic experiences in the classroom where they have the freedom to design on their own and engage in solving problems.”

Mr. Jerozolim and his colleagues at CIJE believe that students at Jewish elementary, middle, and high schools should have the opportunity to get both a Jewish and a secular education, and both should be at a high level.

Mr. Jerozolim’s engineering background supports creating a STEM curriculum that is tailored to the school’s specific needs. “We provide schools with modules — small sections of the curriculum that fit into a larger, full-year science curriculum — such as hands-on materials for biology labs if the science taught that year is biology,” he said. “A module can also be a robotics club or class.

“Currently, 220 schools nationwide are contracted to receive a broad range of STEM resources from CIJE.”

Mr. Jerozolim explained that CIJE tailors its STEM packages to the diverse needs of schools throughout the country. “Wherever in the country there’s a Jewish school, we are there,” he said. “One of our 11 mentors, each of whom has an advanced degree in education or engineering, will travel to that school to determine what type of support they’re looking for. Whether it wants a one day per week or a five days per week in-class curriculum, an after-school club, or daily extracurricular activity to supplement other coursework, we can help. We provide our member schools with textbooks, lab equipment, mentoring, and teacher/coach training for existing staff, or onboarding for teachers who have begun teaching in the middle of an academic year.”

CIJE’s central office is in Brooklyn. “We mainly market through word of mouth and at Jewish conferences like Prizmah,” Mr. Jerozolim said. (Prizmah is a Jewish day school network.) “Schools reach out to us when they’re looking for unique STEM programs for their students. The school pays an annual membership fee, and we provide all of the resources.”

The Gruss Life Monument Funds was established in 1991 to carry on the philanthropic work of Caroline and Joseph Gruss, who were major benefactors of Jewish education.

“CIJE was created as an umbrella for all of the Gruss Foundation’s educational programming,” Mr. Jerozolim said. “The foundation has since closed, and CIJE stands on its own.” About 25,000 students in more than 200 schools now are benefitting from the educational programs CIJE provides. “The Gruss Foundation’s goal to incorporate STEM in the classroom was a decade ahead of its time,” he added.

Mr. Jerozolim has been CIJE’s director of curriculum development for five years. During that time, he’s worked to ramp up STEM programming for schools that want to create, upgrade, or enhance their offerings in the field.

“When a school is interested in offering a robotics club or a class specific to building a robot, we tell them that we’ll provide the objective, but it’s up to the student to find the solution,” Mr. Jerozolim said. “We offer 10 robotics tournaments around the country throughout the year for students to participate in at the end of each school year.”

Once the robot kits — which include motors, gears, nuts, bolts, pulleys, and plastic pieces — are sent to the teacher or coach, he or she engages with a CIJE mentor directly for support in both creating a robotics team and overseeing the club or class. A team of students will use those kits to build a robot and eventually to participate in a tournament.

Day school students at a Robotics League tournament look at some of the devices they’ve made.

“Our goal is to onboard the coach to guide students versus teaching them how to build a robot,” Mr. Jerozolim said. “It’s like opening a box of Lego pieces without instructions. We want the students, who work as a team versus individually, to be innovative and ingenious. It’s an opportunity for students to learn the value of give and take, to be creative by sharing design ideas with their teammates. We hope they’ll ask each other: ‘what’s the best way to build this?’”

Mr. Jerozolim explained that the kit includes pieces of the robot. “Everyone gets both a kit full of pieces that are permissible to use in a VEX tournament and a task to complete. The quantity of pieces is not a factor, but what students do with those pieces determines how well they perform.”

VEX tournaments provide regulations specific to the size of the model and the number of wheels and motors that it can include, but it’s up to the students to decide how many pieces from the kit to use. The annual theme and challenge are based on the official VEX Robotics Challenge, the global leader in robotics tournaments. “It typically takes two to three weeks to get the school the supplies and another two to three months to build the robot,” Mr. Jerozolim said. “Each club’s goal is to complete their project in time to participate in the April 2024 tournament. Building the robot is a great challenge and a great learning experience.”

A partial list of local CIJE member schools includes the JEC schools in Elizabeth, the Moriah School in Englewood, the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, the Frisch School and the Yavneh Academy in Paramus, the Torah Academy of Bergen County and Yeshivat He’Atid in Teaneck, and the Golda Och Academy’s upper and lower schools, both in West Orange.

“It’s enlightening to see Jewish students so engaged in STEM learning,” Mr. Jerozolim said. “We are proud to offer such comprehensive programming in our CIJE curriculum. CIJE empowers Jewish day school and yeshiva students to develop the skills necessary for success in an increasingly technology-driven world.”

The tournament in Washington Heights will be on Monday, April 1, from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. and will bring together more than 500 middle and high school students, 140 robots, and 35 network schools.

“Students who participate in the CIJE VEX Robotics League gain valuable skills in advanced programming, mechanical building, teamwork and problem solving as they design, build, and compete with their robots,” Mr. Jerozolim said, “The championship event serves as a culmination of their hard work and dedication throughout the year.”

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