By Yasmine Abouzaglo
Akiba Yavneh Academy (AYA) has made Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) programming a priority, and accessible and possible for every student. AYA has developed extensive curricula with STEAM enrichment programs, accelerated learning opportunities, award-winning Science Fair projects, a student-run Math Club, Robotics and Engineering clubs, a Makerspace and so many more student-focused options to engage in the facets of STEAM. It is part of AYA’s overall goals to emphasize Torah U’madda: providing students a dual-curriculum General Studies and Judaic education and preparing them to go out into the world; STEAM programming is integral to this philosophy.
Inside the classrooms, AYA equips future creators with the proper skills through their extensive and rigorous STEAM opportunities and programs. “Beginning in the Lower School, students are invited to explore areas they may be unfamiliar with,” says Principal Danielle Rothenberg. Students are supported not only inside the classroom, but also with experiential opportunities to apply classroom-based knowledge to real-world experiences. Students enhance their critical thinking and logic skills while solving challenging problems. So why is STEAM important towards a younger child’s education? Principal Rothenberg says that “it encourages higher-order thinking that empowers students to take control and creativity into their learning, which will then impact the future of their own lives and that of their community.” STEAM takes children outside the classroom and enables them to apply their learning to the real world, providing them the skills to shine in this modern age.
Throughout the school, science programs are centered on hands-on laboratory and discovery-based work, and the math curricula are rigorous and application-based. In addition to the challenging daily curricula, the AYA Discovery programs and on-campus afterschool activities offer an array of choices — such as robotics, coding, chess, dance, robo coding, drone-activities and woodworking — for students to participate in.
AYA Engineering is spearheading Technology Student Association (TSA) regional competitions, where last year they received multiple awards, and are looking to do the same in this year’s tournaments. AYA even has a dedicated engineering website, yavnehengineering.org. AYA’s Upper School Principal Donna Hutcheson adds that last year, the school introduced “ a VEX Robotics program [where] students worked to assemble robots.” In the Middle School, students are preparing for the national VEX Robotics competition where, with the help of their advisor, Rabbi Kenigsberg, the students are building VEX robot sets from scratch.
AYA’s Math Department is especially impressive. Over and above the challenging classes, often tailored to a student’s ability, students frequent math labs hosted by their peers and teachers, always supported for their curiosity to learn more. One such place is the Math Club, where students gather to discuss advanced math topics of interest to them. The Math Club also attends national math competitions at schools such as Yale University and Texas A&M, where they have received many awards over the years. Through the Math Club, students have created the Jewish High School Math League (JHSML), which for the past few years has hosted international online math competitions. Together, club members write questions and facilitate virtual competitions, in addition to maintaining a dedicated website with various blog posts (jhsmathleague.org).
Applying scientific knowledge in the classroom through hands-on labs, Mrs. Celeste Dominguez, AYA biology and chemistry teacher, says the students are being prepared for “high-technology careers.” Time in a laboratory is especially important because, as Dominguez continues, “Labs further advance learning at all levels of science education.” Dominguez cites a 2020 American Chemical Society research study, saying “Research has shown that students who engage in well-designed laboratory experiences develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.” Problem solving is a fundamental skill that teaches students to “think independently” and “that will serve them well in college, and into adulthood,” Dominguez adds.
In addition to the rigorous course schedule, many students, including alumni Ephraim Weiss (‘22) and Benjamin Schussler (‘22), have participated and led various STEAM-related clubs, including the Engineering Club. They can personally attest to the value and excellence of AYA’s STEAM opportunities.
Schussler remarks that participating in AYA’s engineering and robotics programs has given him “access to equipment and guidance that has allowed [him] to make mechanical projects [he’d] never have been able to make on [his] own.” A participant and award winner in last year’s Engineering competition, Schussler exclaims that the STEAM programs “really enhanced [his] high school experience.”
Weiss is also a fervent STEAM student. Through the Engineering Club, Weiss has learned incredible “leadership qualities.” Some of Weiss’ highlights include the “electrical, mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering” work they have delved into. Yearly, the club completes a capstone project and, under the guidance of their adviser, Ms. Nichole Gambulous, has won regional and national competitions. In addition, AYA participates in the High School Texas Science and Engineering Fair (TXSEF) and has won several awards over the years.
With regard to Art, last school year, the lower school students painted a mural, and high school students expressed their creativity and teamwork skills in their mural spray painting in collaboration with guest artist, Rabbi Yitzchok Moully. Their works are displayed in the Lower School and outside the AYA gym, respectively.
Ours is a tradition, a culture and a heritage that embraces STEAM. Some of our greatest scientists, doctors, writers, teachers and entrepreneurs started with a foundational STEAM education. With this in mind, the collective AYA has emphasized STEAM for years, and will do so for years to come. AYA offers a unique approach to STEAM education: classroom instruction and experiential opportunities coupled with the nurturing and development of AYA students to be leaders, preparing them for their lives after graduation. Akiba Yavneh Academy’s emphasis on STEAM is not merely to prepare its students for the professional world, following in the great tradition of our ancestors, through Torah U’Madda, a general studies and Jewish lens, but to prepare students to be the next leaders, thinkers and participants in our greater community and kehillah.
Yasmine Abouzaglo in an Akiba Yavneh Academy student journalist.