Stem with a purpose: Middle school elective promotes competition

Lincoln Aftergood, Reporter

A competition to design devices for use during natural disasters led to a new course for eighth grade students called the Cadena Initiative elective.

CESJDS will compete regionally against Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy and put their prototypes on display on Sunday, April 7 at JDS. Whichever school wins the regional competition run by Cadena Initiative can send its participating students to Mexico City, where they will compete internationally for the chance to have their prototype used in real disasters.

Upper School STEM coordinator Cassandra Batson, who teaches the elective, said 17 students in the course are being very innovative in solving problems during the course.

“My favorite ideas are where students are proposing solutions to addressing panic,” Batson said. “During natural disasters, a lot of people panic and they don’t know what to do, and so a lot of my students are starting with that saying, ‘Well, how can we simplify it or how can we meet their needs in this moment?’ So it is applicable to not just one natural disaster, but many.”

Eighth-grader Talia Sporkin said that through this course, she has learned many new skills including problem-solving, proper research techniques and logistical skills.

“I think it is a really cool opportunity, especially competing against other schools. I really hope we win, especially against Berman,” Sporkin said.

Before beginning to build prototypes, however, participants were split into groups, each focused on solving different problems, such as natural disaster prevention and education.

“My group is focusing on people,” Sporkin said. “That could be helping people during flooding and saving them, or GPS tracking them when they are lost. It is a lot of fun and Mrs. Batson is really great and helpful.”

Once each group proposed its ideas, the class began to build a prototype of whichever design they liked the most.

Middle school principal Eliana Lipsky is glad she introduced the class as an elective after it was proposed to her by Batson.

“I would love to see more day schools involved in this,” Lipsky said. “Jewish education and day schools are always committed to promoting a better world and improving the world around us. The more schools that can get involved, the better for humanity.”

However, the class is only open for students in eighth grade this year because of team size limits and to ensure that all participants are academically prepared for the contest.

“When talking to Mrs. Batson, one of the ideas was that we wanted students who have gone through a certain level of academics,” Lipsky said. “Science, math, coding, robotics, engineering—they have had those opportunities and they can think a little more broadly about this…. It also aligns very well with the theme for the eighth-grade year, which is all about taking action and having an impact on the world around you.”

Lipsky appreciates the way Batson is running the elective and handling the competition. She hopes to continue the class for several years and thinks it is a great addition to the STEM curriculum.

“Mrs. Batson, as our new STEM director, has put her full energy… into looking at all of the opportunities out there,” Lipsky said. “She has really done a wonderful job…deciding what works for our school, what could be a good fit [and] where she wanted to try her first year in involving our students. She really understood this to be one of those places that could catapult our STEM program to the next level.”

This story was featured in the Volume 36, Issue 5 print edition of The Lion’s Tale, published on March 15, 2019.