Friday, June 18, 2021

Sunday, May 9, was a busy day at TABC, as students gathered in the Makerspace to put the finishing touches on their Engineering Capstone projects. Sophomore Eitan Barenholtz, one of the students behind the Auto-Piller—an automated pill dispenser that can be programmed to release different types of pills at different times of the day, using a smartphone app—was among the students who spent several hours on a Sunday afternoon wrapping up their projects. “We came up with the idea for our project when one of our group members shared how their grandfather struggles to remember to take his pills every day, and we knew that we could do something to help,” Barenholtz said.

TABC’s Makerspace strives to be a place where students can create, explore, invent and innovate. Despite the obvious difficulties, this year has seen some amazing STEM innovation at TABC. Each year of TABC’s STEM curriculum ends with an Engineering Capstone project, for which students must think about problems that people face, identify the core of those problems, and try to develop solutions. The culmination of this engineering design process is an invention prototype constructed by the students in small groups. In addition to the prototype itself, students are also required to build a website and produce a video presentation to explain, present and market their product. Aryeh Tiefenbrunn, who serves as director of the STEM program, and Rabbi Shaya First, who teaches the year one engineering class for ninth graders, oversee and assist the students in the process of developing their projects.

“Working on Engineering Capstone projects is my favorite part of the school year,” Tiefenbrunn said. “Guiding students through that process, where ideas begin inside of their heads and end up as physical, real, usable inventions never fails to inspire me.”

Akiva Lieber (‘23), who also worked on the Auto-Piller together with his fellow sophomores Barenholtz, Shimon Ross and Ryan Brandwein, said that the Engineering Capstone project is “a lot of work, but also a lot of fun, and especially worthwhile when you see the finished product.” In Lieber’s case, the finished product included several motors, dozens of 3D-printed parts, vinyl labels, laser-cut wooden components and a healthy dose of glue and duct tape. Ross and Brandwein primarily worked on the website building and background research for the project, while Barenholtz focused his efforts on electrical engineering and programming. Barenholtz shared that “during the whole process we learned the value of teamwork because the project required so many different parts, and one person can’t do all of it themselves. We all discovered something about each other that we didn’t know before.” Development of teamwork, collaboration and communication skills is another hallmark of the STEM experience at TABC.

On the extracurricular side of the STEM program, the TABC Robotics Team had a rocky start to the year due to challenges posed by COVID-19. “It was really unclear, early on, whether the Robotics Team would be able to work on their robot, which requires the students involved to be in relatively close quarters,” said Tiefenbrunn, who coaches the team. “Fortunately, the incredibly motivated team captains pushed me to try and find a solution, and thanks to the TABC Medical Committee, we were able to develop guidelines for how the team could do their work.”

This year, the Robotics Team was led by senior captains Ezra Baron and Tzvi Motechin. “Getting to lead a team that was able to compete with all the craziness going on was a highlight of this year for me,” Motechin said. “Personally, I gained a new perspective on how to lead a team and encouraged my guys while bringing out everyone’s best.”

The team competed in the CIJE (Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education) Robotics Tournament this year, which included competitions in January and April. The students needed to build a robot that could lift plastic balls about five inches in diameter, and place them in hoops to score points. They tried many different designs, ultimately settling on two robots that competed in the January event. “The team did great in the January competition, but it was obvious their designs weren’t perfect,” Tiefenbrunn said. The team would have to work hard in order to do better in April.

By the time April came around, the team had completely disassembled their robot and taken a refined approach, based on their reflections from the first competition. As the competition came closer, students on the team were feeling more confident and better prepared for the challenge that laid ahead of them. Captain Ezra Baron reflected on the weeks preceding the April competition: “One highlight of my experience as captain was witnessing the way our entire team worked so hard the week of the competition. We would be in the Makerspace during all hours of the day, trying all sorts of ideas to present the best product.”

Leading a team can be challenging. When six or more students are all working on one robot, it can be easy for disagreements to escalate and even interfere with the team’s ability to have the robot ready on time. “Personally, I gained a new understanding of leadership from my experience with this team,” said Baron. “Sometimes, instead of being the one who speaks the most and with the loudest voice, being a leader means supporting everyone’s unique opinion, while making them feel that their voice is being heard.”

The April robotics competition came and went, and the TABC team’s robot was much more polished this time around. “It was such a marked improvement over the first semester,” Tiefenbrunn remarked. “I’m never disappointed when my students don’t do a perfect job the first time around. I’m only disappointed when they don’t start thinking about how they could do better.” And improve the Robotics Team did, with an average score that was the highest the CIJE Tournament had seen all year! Several other schools’ teams were still yet to compete, so it remained to be seen whether TABC would be the champions.

Every May, CIJE hosts an Innovation Day Fair, where hundreds of engineering projects from dozens of schools are presented and awards are given in several categories. This year, the event was virtual, with the awards ceremony being held as a video livestream. During the ceremony, it was announced that TABC’s Robotics Team had won the tournament championship! After this incredible announcement, CIJE began announcing the awards in different categories for Engineering Capstone projects from various schools. The first place award for Best Engineering Simulation was awarded to the Auto-Piller, whose 3D design models and associated smartphone app, coupled with the website design and prototype construction, earned it this well-deserved recognition. Several other TABC projects were ranked as finalists in their respective categories as well.

“We are extremely proud that in the three years since the establishment of our STEM program, our students have continually demonstrated excellence and achievement,” said Head of School Rabbi Shlomo Adelman. “Their creativity, knowledge, and persistence is inspiring. We can’t wait to see what’s next!”

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