By Maayan Jaffe, JNS.org
Picture a mad science lab with electrical wires, computer chords, ropes, and wheels and you have a pretty good picture of one of the country’s more than 20 CIJE-Tech laboratories.
CIJE, the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education, is a non-profit organization that provides advanced classroom technology and laboratories, engaging STEM curricula, teacher training, and vital support that fosters academic innovation and excellence in Jewish day schools and yeshivot across North America. Started in 2001 in 15 schools and with 3,000 students, today the program is in 148 institutions, reaching more than 30,000 students in grades 1 through 12.
On Feb. 12, a group of close to 40 new and first-year CIJE educators traveled to Israel for several days of hands-on training from the scientists, engineers, and educators who created the programs CIJE adopted in the U.S. This is the third year such a trip has taken place. According to CIJE Vice President Judy Lebowitz, the teachers will take on the role of students and get a taste of how the Israeli school system operates, a system that has churned out many of the innovators and entrepreneurs that make Israel the “start-up nation.”
The board of Gruss Life Monument Funds had the idea for CIJE in the late 1990s. Jason Cury, then the president and CEO of Gruss and now the head of CIJE, said the Gruss board was concerned that students educated in Jewish day schools were not being adequately prepared for success in the 21st century. The committee researched different opportunities, and in 2001 launched a computer assisted instruction program in 15 Jewish elementary schools. Soon after, it launched its Excellence 2000 (E2K) math and science program for middle school students. By 2008, the program had grown so large—and the initiative so focused—that CIJE was established as an independent 501(c)(3) charitable organization.
Its newest program, CIJE-Tech, was born in 2011. This, according to Cury, is a discovery-focused, interactive two-year curriculum in scientific and biomedical engineering, which exposes students to a diverse range of science and technical knowledge areas, while helping them develop abstract thinking.
The computer-assisted learning program is based on the Pearson Digital Learning Curriculum. E2K was developed in partnership with the Israel Center for Excellence in Education. CIJE-Tech is modeled after Israel’s ORT schools.
Cury said schools pay between $3,000 and $6,000 per year, which entitles them to the program and regular teacher mentoring. The program employs curriculum writers and consultants, as well as a handful of engineers. The engineers are each assigned schools with which they meet weekly.
“We don’t just give you the hardware and software and leave you,” said Cury. “We want our students to do very well and achieve on a very high level in these areas. … We give you appropriate support.”
Dr. Danny Aviv, who holds a doctorate in genetics and a master’s degree in Jewish education, is a CIJE-Tech teacher at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, outside of New York City. He traveled to Israel with CIJE three years ago, and said CIJE is essential to the future of Jewish day schools.
“If we really want our day schools and yeshivot to compete with private schools and really good public schools, we need to have things that are different, inspirational, not under the constraints of the normal frontal teaching model,” said Aviv. “CIJE has made an amazing leap.”
For someone with Aviv’s background, teaching under the CIJE methodology of presenting problems and asking students to come up with solutions, of hands-on research and entrepreneurship, is not an enormous stretch. But for many teachers this can be a difficult transition.
“One of the first things these teachers have to accept is that it is OK to say, ‘I don’t know,’” explained engineer Adam Jerozolim, who works with 11 CIJE schools in the New York area. “It is all about problem solving. There is no right or wrong. There is a problem. There are tools that you have. They don’t need to know everything; they need to know how the tools work. It sometimes takes a year for teachers to get comfortable with that.”
The Israel trip assists with this transition.
“We are trying to show the teachers how engineering can be used practically and where technology can go. It helps them to see the bigger picture, and to bring that enthusiasm back to the students,” said Jerozolim.
There are challenges, too. Aviv said Israel tends to be more product directed, while in the U.S. schools are focused on assessments and grades, which are needed to get into top colleges and universities.
“Israel can take a more eye on the prize approach,” said Aviv, noting innovation is more celebrated in the Jewish state than in the U.S. “Concerning ourselves with grades, but also maintain the gestalt [form or shape] of being able to figure it out alone is sometimes a contradiction.”
Aviv also said the longer day school day at Jewish day schools makes it harder for students to put in the extra hours often needed to delve into an engineering project.
“It takes a lot of time, and struggles and failures. Success can be challenging with our time constraints,” he said. In Israel, students finish school by 2:30 p.m. and tend to have fewer extracurricular activities than American students.
But it seems the U.S. schools want to make it work. Since 2001, CIJE has built 100 computers laboratories and 25 state-of-the-art science laboratories, and donated more than 500 smart boards, all of which are being utilized to maximum capacity through its programs. Lebowitz said every other week a new school contacts her about wanting to get on board. As fundraising runs the program, CIJE is careful to only open in schools where there are enough students and qualified faculty to maintain the program.
Current demand for CIJE is outpacing fundraising. Schools range from Hassidic to yeshivish to Conservative and community day schools. They are located as far east as New York, as far west as California, in the south, and in the Midwest. Lebowitz said program staff is constantly looking at improvement. Soon CIJE will debut a new course for eighth graders, which will better prepare them for the demands of the CIJE-Tech high school curriculum. The decision to write that course was based on teacher feedback.
“If we want our students to become future leaders, it is important they start thinking like future leaders and innovators. … Engineering is a tool we need to bring to our students,” said Jerozolim. “It’s innovation, entrepreneurship and a new wave of thinking.”
Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan.