Of the seven HAFTR teams, two were comprised of only girls.

By Marcy Farrell

The Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education held its Vex robotics competition at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway in December. This year, CIJE decided to expand  its robotics league to Jewish middle schools; 58 teams from more than 20 schools participated, with 11 middle school teams.

Jason Cury, president of CIJE, commented on the importance of the event. “This event is more than a competition. This is how we create the next great leaders in STEM,” stated Mr. Cury. “This how we continue to adopt and, as Jews, inspire others with our success. This is the future of education.”

Students started with a Vex robot platform and added features they thought would help them win points in the competition. The challenge paved the way for creative approaches to problem solving, as well as the opportunity to hone essential soft skills: collaboration, strategic thinking, troubleshooting, agility and the ability to pivot seamlessly, explained Benjamin Gross, director, IT and Educational Technology at HAFTR.

Middle school students prepared for the tournament by building, coding, and learning to maneuver VEX Robots around a table-top rink filled with balls and cubes. Points were awarded for having your robot move a ball into a cube or on top of the cube on the playing field and pushing a cube into a corner or putting a cube on one of the three platforms.

Through this initiative, students gain first-hand exposure to robotics, which combines three separate disciplines: electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science, explained Judy Lebovits, vice president/director of CIJE. “We carefully construct our robots to hit specific educational criteria and standards. But more so, this is about the students testing their self confidence and their determination to succeed.”

At the high school competition, JEC and Central took the top honors. JEC recently built a new STEM Lab, has quickly become a leader in STEM education in New Jersey. Rabbi Ami Neuman, principal of JEC, was elated to watch his students take home first place. “It is so fulfilling to win this today,” commented Rabbi Neuman. “Our incredible STEM program and our newly built lab have transformed the way we view education. To watch students design, create at school and then succeed at events like this makes you realize they are building themselves a very bright future in this field.”

One of JECs teams takes a break to smile

HAFTR swept the middle school competition by placing first, second, and third, led by Gittel Grant, director of STEM and Science Innovation. “I was gratified to see that the top two winning teams were represented by a HAFTR all-girls team and a HAFTR all-boys team,” said Mrs. Grant. “I think it sends a powerful message about equal capability on this field.”

Teams from JEC Middle School placed in the top 10, as did groups from Hebrew Academy of Nassau County.

“Today was a testament to the high-level work students are doing in their science classes, and how well positioned they are to be successful in the evolving job markets of the future,” said principal of HAFTR Middle School Joshua Gold.

At every competition, the robots and rinks stay the same but the game changes, said Adam Jerozolim, director of curriculum development at CIJE. Last year, when the competition with just for high school students, the goal was to shoot tennis balls into basketball hoops. This year was to stack plastic cubes. The next event on April 30 will require the students to code their robots to drive autonomously for part of the game.

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