Engineering the Sukkah: Authentic STEM in a Jewish Day School Curriculum

| By Rabbi Matthew Bellas

Last summer, DigitalJLearning Network had the pleasure of taking 15 Jewish day school educators to the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia, PA. The participants shared their learning from the conference and what they hoped to implement in the coming school year. Now we're catching up with these educators and finding out how their new educational technology initiatives are going. Rabbi Matthew Bellas (@Matthew_Bellas), Lower School Principal at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, shares his thoughts in the next installment in this new blog series.



Upon leaving ISTE, one of my goals was to develop authentic means to incorporate more STEM into our academic program across the disciplines, including both Hebrew and Judaic Studies. For our school’s first two years with a formal STEM initiative, the primary focus had been on “one-off” programs, conceived, planned, and executed primarily by our STEM specialist and with facilitation by our faculty. These events brought tremendous energy into the school for participation in activities in the core STEM disciplines. However, they were not emergent from the curriculum which the school had invested great effort and resources into building, and investment among faculty not primarily engaged in the sciences and tech was low. Therefore, the questions I asked our educational leadership team to consider were:

  1. How could we better integrate STEM experiences and studies into the everyday life and learning of the school?
  2. How could we accomplish the same positively charged learning atmosphere in the classrooms without setting aside “special days” for STEM experiences?
  3. How could we achieve more comprehensive integration of all subject matters, including Hebrew and Judaic Studies and the Arts, into the STEM-driven plans that we make?

We hit the ground running last fall with new ideas that promoted more authentic and comprehensive integration, while maintaining the charged energy for learning. However, the key to our success thus far has been identifying avenues for meaningful engagement with Judaic topics specifically. These are a couple of the best examples of work and projects that we have initiated. Inspired by cardboard STEM challenges, we created a “Cardboard Sukkah Challenge” during which students were required to design sukkot that were aligned with kosher sukkah laws while putting into practice math and engineering skills. Students also wrote reflections, in both Hebrew and English, on the building experience and how the Next Generation Science Standard of “Cause & Effect” was at play during the design and building process.

Inspired by the push to include more coding in the curriculum and the success of our Hour of Code program, we formed a partnership with CodeMonkey in Israel. Students used the coding training program with instructions in Hebrew to experience an authentic application of their Hebrew language skills. By exposing students to and having them participate in a tech-based educational initiative coming out of Israel, we helped to build their connection with the country while engaging the Judaic Studies classes in a STEM-based activity.

These new programs have been extremely successful in allowing us to achieve goals that we set out. However, there were also challenges that presented themselves, which we acknowledge will always exist for programs of this nature. First, when designing units or activities that cross the disciplines, identifying and allocating sufficient planning time is a challenge. Professional development and faculty meeting time have helped, but teachers had to be willing to work “off hours” to bring these plans to fruition. Second, many of our teachers have been teaching the same subjects on the same grade levels for a long time. They are used to their programs and routines, and a sense of confidence and comfort come from their perceived “ownership” of their programs. Proposing a change that requires not only new content to be taught, but also partnering with teachers from other departments, means breaking out of the “silo,” which for teachers can be perceived as a big risk and, therefore, can be very difficult to accomplish. Third, an outgrowth of working in a “silo” for many years is that teachers can be narrowly focused and forget that their subject is only one “slice” of a larger pie, and that there are connections that can be built between the pieces to build a stronger whole. This is a paradigm shift that must be deliberately approached.

It has been an inspiring growth experience for us to confront these challenges and forge ahead.  We have other activities both in the elementary stages of “start-up” and planning, such as a tech-based collaborative learning partnership between our school and one in Israel, a Tu Bishvat-themed plant growth cycle lab, and a sea planes engineering unit. The positive outcomes from our first forays into this exploration have built positive energy and motivation in the school and we hope to continue our growth.


Learn more about integrating STEM into Jewish day school curriculum by submitting a question to Ask DJLN, our educational technology help desk.