This past July, educators from the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County arrived in the impoverished Mbekweni community in Paarl, South Africa to help open a first-ever library for the 1,500 students of the Langabuya School. They also delivered a stock of solar-powered reading lights designed and built by Schechter’s sixth graders.
Having learned about the compelling needs of this resource-challenged community, Schechter’s students helped purchase 1,000 English-language books, printed 500 in the students’ native language of Xhosa, and supplied simple solar-powered devices for Langabuya students—many of whom do not have electricity at home—to check out books and read them at night.
The natural extension to Schechter’s values-based global framework is the fall 2018 opening of the hands-on Popkin Innovation Lab, named after its generous alumni donor. The lab is equipped with cutting-edge technology that will empower students to solve real-world problems. They will learn to design, build, prototype and test potential solutions using a range of tools, including a sand blaster, a laser cutter, and a 3D printer, just to name a few.
The lab is meant to spark students’ creativity with the goal of tikkun olam, the concept in Judaism of helping repair our world. Even more so, it is meant to help develop students’ ability to question, dream, and test the ways in which they can benefit the world around them through design thinking, a hands-on method that challenges conventional thinking and pushes students to redefine problems so they can come up alternative strategies and solutions. At the same time, design thinking provides a solution-based approach with real people in mind.
At Schechter, the combination of a values-based education; hands-on, inquiry-based learning; and the integration of technology has proven to be a powerful tool in helping students develop a strong moral compass, one of four core pillars of the school.
1. Technology requires students to understand real-world consequences
Technology is an audience-widener. User-focused projects, coupled with purpose-driven use of technology, challenge students to engage with a broader audience and consider special circumstances or needs. For example, as students began designing solar-powered lights for students in South Africa, they realized that they could not provide even the simplest of assembly instructions in English to a largely non-English-speaking student body. They would have to design a product that could be quickly assembled with instructional images, including ways to repair a faulty light.