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Tuesday, June 28, 2022
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Excitement was pulsing through the air inside the Fort Washington Armory Track in Manhattan, where hundreds of students from Jewish day schools nationwide gathered for a highly anticipated robotics competition on Tuesday, April 5. The event, a culmination of the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE)’s year-round robotics league, was co-hosted by Teach Coalition and welcomed nearly 100 robots from a total of 37 schools to participate in a variety of matches.

The robots present at the competition were all built by middle school and high school students, and were programmed to complete a variety of tasks, with the ultimate goal of scoring points. While robotics teams from Jewish day schools are not uncommon, many have been unable to participate in competitions—that is, until CIJE began hosting its own just a few years ago.

“These competitions usually take place on Shabbos,” explained Phillip Brazil, vice president of development at CIJE. “So we decided to host our own. We started out very small, but this year is our biggest year yet, with about 60 robots in our fall competition, and about 90 robots in this one.”

Brazil continued that CIJE has worked together with Teach Coalition, a program run by the Orthodox Union that advocates for funding in nonpublic schools, because they both value STEM education for Jewish students. “We’re natural partners…what we’re doing today [at the competition] proves that the funding Teach secures is going to good causes,” he shared.

“Almost all of the schools today are members of Teach Coalition,” said Adam Katz, associate director of government programs for Teach. “A lot of these robotics and STEM programs are being funded through initiatives that we’ve advocated for, championed and created along with our member schools. It’s amazing to see the outcome of our advocacy and the well-rounded education that is being provided to these students at an event like this.”

Katz also shared his excitement to see his childrens’ school, YBH of Passaic, at the competition. “Being a part of this CIJE programming reassures me that the students at YBH are getting a balanced education. That’s important to me as a parent and as a part of Teach Coalition.”

Several teachers present at the competition emphasized the same sentiment as Katz: that STEM education is paramount to molding young children into bright, successful adults. “We are focused on creating a culture of problem-solving,” said Aryeh Laufer, head of STEM at the IDEA School. “The goal of participating in competitions like this is not to win, but to celebrate what we’ve learned and solve problems together.”

“Part of our robotics program is teaching students how robots can be used to implement change in our daily lives,” shared Daniel Kamelhar, director of technology at Westchester Day School. “We don’t really think about how robots impact our day-to-day until we assess how we use them—whether in cars, medicine, food preparation and even chores at home.”

Getting students to realize this impact and actualize change through technology is one of the main goals of CIJE, explained Orly Nadler, who is the organization’s coordinator of STEM innovation. “Our program gives students the tools they need to solve problems and the ability to use computer programming and electronic devices to create pathways to solutions,” she said. “These kids are empowered to go out into the world and change it using robotics.”

Nadler continued that STEM, and specifically robotics, not only encourages problem-solving on a broad scale, but also shows students that there are multiple ways to approach the same task at hand. “If you look at the different robots at today’s competition, each one is optimized for a different strategy at achieving the same game. As these students are competing, they are implicitly getting exposure to different strategic builds.”

The importance of encouraging teamwork is another sentiment that educators at the competition expressed widely, as students worked together to build their robots, as well as find solutions to arising issues during each match. “The students here today are working as teams, and not competing against each other individually,” explained Nadler.

Kamelhar noted that while his seventh-grade students were having some trouble with their robot, he was glad to see them working with each other. “The benefit of being in this competition is that students learn how to collaborate, and figure out how to improve their situation and move on as a team. This is really above and beyond the actual competition, and something I hope they take with them,” he shared.

Even for seasoned competition participants, there’s always something new to learn, explained Aryeh Tiefenbrunn, director of STEM and innovation at TABC. “I’ve been to these robotics competitions seven or eight times now, and I keep seeing the new things that students take with them. It’s a really incredible experience for me as a coach,” he said. “Whether it’s teamwork, the strategies, system design, programming or UX design, there are so many benefits to just being a part of this competition and getting involved in robotics.”

Tiefenbrunn’s robotics students reaped those benefits after months of working on their robots, receiving a high score of 59 points in a single match and ultimately tying with JEC for first place in the competition. TABC students Andy Rosenberg and Akiva Lieber both shared with The Jewish Link that this score was the highlight of their day, and they were thrilled to show off what they had spent so much time working on.

Aside from sharing their own work, both Rosenberg and Lieber expressed their excitement to see what other schools had done to prepare for the competition. “Just seeing what others have done is really amazing,” said Lieber. Rosenberg added, “The whole event is amazing…it’s so impressive [that CIJE] was able to bring all of these schools together to participate in something like this.”

It was clear from the energy in the room that the participants were all similarly excited to meet students from other schools and see what other robotics teams had been working on. “There is something beautiful about bringing in students from all different yeshivas,” said Nadler. “It shows individual students that there is a bigger movement of kids who are interested in STEM, and creates a kinship.”

After a full afternoon of both frustration and euphoria, the Armory was buzzing with anticipation for the day’s winners. Ultimately, Solomon Schechter of Queens and YBH of Passaic tied for first place in the middle school division, and TABC and JEC tied for first in the high school division.

“They get trophies—and pride,” said Brazil. And of course, everyone at the competition took home so much more: a day of trials and triumphs, inspiring teamwork and lifelong memories.

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