Today I witnessed the future of education- and it wasn't the dancing robot. #JedLab

It's that time of year again. No, I don't mean the time of year when our most upperclassmen lose focus as Aaron Ross just blogged about. Our seniors have already gotten over their senioritis and are now in nostalgic mode. But that is not what I am talking about...

It's the time of year when our engineering students are engrossed in their end-of-year engineering projects. It is a wonder to behold. Today, I was in the engineering lab because we had a presentation by Teq of their new dancing robot. It was pretty cool and could really help teach computer coding but what was going on in the lab amongst the students was much cooler. While I talked with the engineering teacher and the reps from Teq all of the students were engrossed in their various projects. They did have a little help from the CIJE coordinator of the engineering program who was visiting, but mostly it was all student-driven learning. One group was creating a coil gun which theoretically could be used to launch people in outer space. Another group was creating a robot to sense water temperature on a faucet and automatically modulate it to the right temperature. And the list goes on and on.

So many things about this class were unlike almost every other yeshiva high school class I have witnessed. One kid was absent because of a stomach virus so his team called him on their cell phones, a contraband item in most other high school classes, so he could participate and lead the group. Nobody left when the bell rang. Most kids finally sauntered out 5-10 minutes into the next class. Three students were so involved in their project that they stayed the entire next period, cutting chemistry class- these are honors students and they have an SAT II in Chem coming up. But how can you get kids in trouble for cutting chemistry so they could spend more time in the engineering lab! The lab has open hours during various periods throughout the day, 4 periods on Friday alone, so that any kid with a free (or otherwise) can come in when they want to work on their projects.

How has such an environment been fostered? I can think of a number of factors.

1. This is a very self selected group. Kids had to apply to the program to get in. They have special guests all the time, parent volunteers and alumni who come to present on different areas of engineering like robotic surgery, the mathematics behind film animation, biomedical engineering etc. They go on special field trips like a trip to Google in NYC which I blogged about in the past. The kids feel special and they behave that way.

2. There is a great deal of mentoring and role modeling. Besides the CIJE coordinator who comes often and the special guest presenters who I have discussed, the class is visited regularly by Israeli delegations. The program was developed in Israel by Sci-Tech Schools and just yesterday a delegation of Israeli high school engineering students and Sci-Tech board members visited our school. Meeting with both engineering classes simultaneously they created a kind of "Science Beit Midrash" with the room buzzing with talk between our students and their guests. You can view pictures of this amazing visit here. This constant stream of visiting experts and students only adds to our students' creativity and passion.

3. Students experience genuine, project-based learning. The year is divided into two segments. During the first semester, students are involved in teacher-driven projects and activities so they can explore various topics like electronics, robotics, and coding. They then spend the second semester drafting a project of their own. They have to submit a proposal, create detailed schematics, and then each group is given a budget to order parts for their project. Students are now in the most advanced stage of this exercise as they struggle to put their projects together. These are all real-world projects. They are open-ended. They often involve a great deal of outside knowledge not studied in class which students have to research on their own. Full disclosure, my son is in this class- he is in one of the groups designing a coil gun- and he tells me he has spent countless hours watching YouTube video tutorials on various aspects of electrical engineering. He says that his big breakthrough came when he realized that he did not need to understand all of the math- much of which is advanced calculus which he has not yet studied- in order to figure out how to build his project. Wow!

So I am back to a question that I asked last year when I previously blogged about this engineering class. Can we utilize student-driven, project based learning in our other General Studies and Judaic Studies classes? We have been very successful doing this in informal education. Our Shiriyah is a week long school-wide celebration in which the majority of kids find something they are passionate about and work on it day and night- coming in on Sunday and staying past 10PM every single night of the week. And don't think it is just because they want to win since to most kids the seniors winning is a forgone conclusion (although occasionally they do not). It is because the students are given the opportunity to show their talents in a supportive environment where everyones' unique skills are applauded.

So can we do this in other subjects?

I think the answer is yes and no. We are a college preparatory yeshiva high school. This means that our students have to take standardized tests in a number of disciplines. This forces teachers to teach to the test and in some way limits the depth that can be covered in a chemistry class for example since students need to gain a wide predetermined breadth of knowledge. However, at the same time more can be done in these subjects. Dan Meyer for example has a fascinating TED talk in which he talks about how we need to give students more open ended, real world problems that cannot be answered just by plugging in the formulas so students can be trained in patient problem solving.

In Judaic studies I believe that the answer should certainly be yes. Since there are no standardized tests or preset curriculums to teach to why can't we be more open ended and creative in how we facilitate student learning? One of my most memorable teaching experiences came from a 9th grade Gemara class over a decade ago where as a culminating project the entire class designed a how to learn Gemara website. The premise was simple. We had spent the entire year on various activities to acquire the skills to learn Gemara independently. Now the students had to create a website for other 9th graders just like themselves to help them acquire these skills. This was both a comprehensive review of the entire year's worth of material and an activity of metacognition. The kids loved it and, most importantly, I am still in touch with many of them because of the deep relationships we developed doing this project together.

So this is my challenge. Let's try to make every student have at least one class that is like our engineering class. A class which they feel special to be a part of. A class where they experience a great deal of mentoring and role modeling. A class with genuine, project based learning.

If you are interested in learning more about this model, I suggest you read Ken Gordon's recent posting in eJewishPhilanthropy on Money Can’t Buy Love… and Neither Can, um, Compulsory Professional Development Seminars. You might also want to become a member of the JDS Media Lab on Facebook and follow the #JedLab hashtag on Twitter.