In this Educator Spotlight, Danny Aviv shares his story of becoming a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) educator and talks about his Engineering and Entrepreneurship (E2) program, where students learn basic structural, electrical and computer engineering concepts through group design competitions, lectures and formal exams. Each year, student-teams form companies, create corporate branding and identity, develop an investor’s pitch and design and build a culminating product that aims to solve a real-life problem.
Dr. Danny Aviv holds a bachelor of science in biology from the State University of New York at Albany, a master of science in microbiology from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, a doctorate degree in genetics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a master of arts in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. His 15 years of teaching experience include the Abraham Joshua Heschel High School where he taught science for five years, Columbia University where he taught genetics as a member of the adjunct faculty, and the American Museum of Natural History where he taught DNA science and evolution. Dr. Aviv is a product of a K-8 Jewish day school education and a lifelong Young Judaean. The thing he loves most about teaching at Schechter Westchester, where he has been a faculty member since 2010, is the palpable respect and connection among all the members of the Schechter Westchester community – students, faculty, parents, and administration.
How did you come to teach STEAM and entrepreneurship?
I finished my PhD in 2002 in genetics and around that time everyone was patenting genes. I was poised to go to law school to become a patent lawyer when I started having second thoughts. I connected with Peter Geffen, who founded The Heschel School. He said to me, “Don’t go to law school. You should be a Jewish educator.” So, I enrolled at The Davidson School at JTS, and soon thereafter I began teaching at Columbia University and The Heschel School. I taught for a few years at various schools and the American Museum of Natural History and then I saw that Schechter Westchester needed a maternity leave replacement for a biology teacher. I took that job for 3 months and then interviewed for a full-time biology teacher position. As part of my new job, I was asked to teach a new engineering elective that was being piloted by CIJE. I was immediately hooked. In that first year, I taught 23 9th and 10th grade students in a biology laboratory. In partnership with a few different foundations, and tremendous support within Solomon Schechter, we now have three makerspaces, K-12 STEAM programming and 150 high school students in a four-year Engineering and Entrepreneurship program. Plus, I’m a full time STEAM educator.
What’s your philosophy on STEAM education?
I use fearlessness as a lens to encourage all of my students to seek their own answers, see failure as an important part of the process, and achieve what they never thought was possible. I’m not a teacher who stands in front of the class disseminating content. I act more like a coach or a facilitator, empowering students to find their own resources and teach themselves as they go. We now how have three cohorts of E2 graduates who are in college and are reporting back that they are at an advantage because they already know how this kind of long-term thinking works. Most students are not trained to just “figure it out” in high school, so my students are quickly taking on leadership roles in their programs. I also work hard to get students into the mindset that failure is part of the process and that temporary setbacks are actually a mark of success. It’s hard for students to grasp at first, but once they get that it’s about their progress, not the product, they’re all in. In E2 students have the opportunity to work collaboratively on a problem or idea over a long period of time. They learn serious engineering skills, they create amazing products, they give professional investors pitches. When I write up their mid-semester narratives or college recommendations, I’m personally floored by all that they have accomplished.
Another integral part of my philosophy on STEAM is the need for for a paradigm shift in teaching -- I’m less of a teacher and more of a catalyst or enabler. I cheer them on and provide resources, but they are masters of their own world. I am quick to admit that I’m not always the expert in the room, and that can be very hard for teachers to say. When I taught that first engineering class, the course was undeveloped, so I said to the kids, “Let’s figure this out together.” I had had them in biology the year before, so I had that buy-in and trust already, but it was a big step. As teachers we want to be experts and be able to answer all the kids’ questions, but I didn’t have all the answers. I know what I’m doing now, but that’s not the important thing. It’s that I gave them the space to figure it out on their own, which is tough. Sophomore year the students are always asking me questions and by Senior year they hardly talk to me. All they need me to do is order the parts they need, because they already know how to use materials and how to make things work. There’s a point at which I’m just watching the controlled chaos. In one corner they’re using power tools, in another one they’re coding furiously, and in another yet they’re discussing a project. It’s poetry -- it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
How does technology play a role in teaching STEAM?
In some sense, technology is the bells and whistles that attract them; and there’s value in that. When kids come in and I say that one thing they’ll do is build apps, they get excited. They’re digital natives already. If I can convince them early on that they’re not just users of technology, that they’re creators as well, then it becomes more relevant to their personal experience.
What’s a standout project you’ve seen your students do?
There were three girls in their Sophomore year who started working on a product called Recap. They wanted to solve the problem of kids taking their parents’ prescription drugs, so they wanted to build a bottle with a coding mechanism. They really didn’t know how to do this at the start, but by year’s end, they built a prototype that was the size of a huge tub of pretzels and was a working model that had a locking mechanism. They also had the branding and corporate identity. In their Senior year, they wanted to revisit their project. They now have a patent pending for their locking mechanism. As a result, one of their tasks was to write an intellectual property (IP) policy for the school because there was no precedent. They asked how to do that, so I had them review Harvard’s policy as an example and then write their own. We also had parents with an IP law firm provide support. It is a great example of three young women who committed to their idea and then got the greater Schechter community involved. If you heard these girls do their pitch, you would not think they were 17 years old. The professionalism they developed speaks for the culture we’re creating via STEAM.
What are other positive outcomes of the STEAM program?
One very important thing that’s happened is that there’s a broad understanding that this is not just for boys; we’ve created a culture where girls are part of the program, often in a leadership role. Also, almost universally, the students are becoming better public speakers and are more confident in their speaking abilities. We also have guest speakers come in and work with the students on communication skills such as writing professional emails and thank you notes. The students are also thinking more about the place of technology in the world. They don’t take technology for granted as much because they understand coding. They’re much more technology savvy and are shifting from users to creators. Also, kids who weren’t necessarily “science and math kids,” or who never would have considered this as a discipline for them, are getting involved.
Another outcome is that we have had a higher acceptance rate to engineering and computer science degree programs in the three years that we’ve had students graduating from E2. Half of those students have been girls. The program has also enabled us to involve the community. This year we’re piloting a program where each tenth-grade student team has a parent as a “company consultant.” The consultant’s job is to help students develop the business component of their idea – and there’s a line of parents interested in doing this! These are very busy parents who are very accomplished in their fields; yet they’re getting really excited about STEAM. The parents all understand that it’s more about the process than the product, that failure is inevitable and often a good thing, and that fearlessness is paramount.
How has your program seeped into other parts of the school? Are other teachers starting to try out STEAM projects?
Through wonderful community support and grant funding, the lower school opened a makerspace this year. To get multiple grades involved, we had 5th grade teach Kindergarten how to build robots out of cardboard. Having them work collaboratively in elementary school promotes the kind of attitude we’re cultivating. They’re developing real skills by having to teach others how to use tools. Right now the middle school is also in the process of finishing up their makerspace. So we now have a K-12 continuum of using making as a lens for education.
I also see kids who are not in E2 being involved and building things. Two years ago, a student, not in my class, had an idea for an app called Pirsomet [advertisement in Hebrew.] For the right to advertise on your phone, the company would donate to the charity of your choice. On his own time, he built this app and won an NYU app competition. He is now enrolled in an entrepreneurship program at Syracuse.
Other teachers are also getting involved. A fun project was when a student and a Physics teacher in the lower school built a stoplight so everyone would know when to stop their groggers during the Megillah reading. When we do school productions or plays now, the organizers think about how to embed technology in meaningful and useful ways. For example, in The Lion King, they added sounds to Rafiki’s staff. I’m also making a plan to work with a history teacher for a unit on the middle ages. We’re going to make catapults and trebuchets and have a battle. We’ve also had a dreidel design competition, and students didn’t have to be part of the STEAM program to participate.
Collaborative making is also happening with the Judaic Studies and STEAM teams. There’s a 6th grade ceremony in which the kids read from the Torah and analyze texts about Har Sinai. The art teacher and I wanted to give a multisensory STEAM experience for Har Sinai, so we built four mountain models and inside each we embedded a recorder. Then each family made a little avatar person and recorded sounds they would have heard at Har Sinai. Some recorded thunder, some did the parasha, and during the ceremony, it was interactive and there was this cacophony of noise, which potentially happened at Har Sinai. It was a family event and now we’re going to do it every year.
More and more teachers are thinking about how STEAM can be involved in their event in school and what the kids can make, so we’re less siloed. It’s exciting for everyone and it’s good teaching, too. We have a very supportive principal and board. With that support and help from our community and foundations, all these ideas are becoming realized.
What advice do you have for teachers who want to start a STEAM program in their school?
Do your research ahead of time, but accept that the students will also learn on their own. In this type of program, a teacher must recognize that they are not always the expert and that that’s a good thing. Capitalize on your resources, such as students who already know coding. I would also advise teachers to try to get support from the whole community while they’re doing projects. Collaborate with as many people as possible. We have a retired engineer grandfather who comes in once a week to help out. He loves it and the kids get to interact with someone regularly who was an actual engineer. Capitalizing on community is part of the fun. It’s also important to publicize everything - when kids build something, invite staff and administrators so they are looped in to what you’re doing. Invite everyone and say, “Come whenever you want.” We had parents come in and say that this is beautiful and amazing, and they helped to promote the course internally and externally. You also have to be willing to learn new skills all the time, every time you can. If you know how to use more tools, then it’s more fun and offers more options for what the kids can do. Like I tell my students, you do not need to be an expert, just to be fearless.
What’s been most rewarding about teaching STEAM and entrepreneurship?
There have been so many rewarding aspects of this job. Here’s an example about one particular student. When she was in 8th grade and applying to the program, I didn’t think she would succeed. She was literally shaking when we met and didn’t seem like a tinkerer, so I was hesitant to accept her into the program. Fast forward four years and this student was one of the girls on the Recap project (see above) and she’s now going to Northwestern’s engineering school and can speak publically about anything. As a result, we eliminated the selection process for the program, because we decided you never know from a cursory glance who’s going to succeed.
What’s also rewarding is that I get what few teachers get - I get these kids for four years. It’s sometimes a stressful, unconventional environment, but the relationship I build with each of them is a very powerful relationship. I’m in the trenches with them, suffering with them, when they succeed that’s my success with them. On my wall I have an old elevator alarm that we wired to say “Done.” When you accomplish something you hit the button. When those bells go off, they understand how amazing they are and that’s the best part for me. It’s getting harder and harder for me to watch them graduate. They built the program with me, designed the curriculum, the rubrics, everything. During the time that they spend with me, I’m not just teaching them, I’m also showing them how to navigate society. It’s so much more rewarding because of the relationships I get to build with them. Our job as educators is to inspire. It’s an honor to be part of students’ lives in that capacity, and it’s a privilege to watch them walk in scared and walk out fearless.
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