The “C” (Character) in STEM

27 February 2015
8 Adar 5775 


Shalom Chaverim,  
 

Earlier this week I had a brief meeting with a student who inspired me. The precursor to this meeting took place just before February vacation.  

I had met with one of our robotics teams, which has advanced to the State Championships of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition, a tribute to their tremendous hard work and dedication. Unfortunately, the competition falls on Shabbat, which means the team and the school are faced with a conflict between our Jewish values and identity and our desire to advance in the competition.  

During my meeting with the team, I explained that the school’s policy is not to hold official school programs on Shabbat (other than Shabbat-focused programs). More importantly, I explained that the process of working with students to create policies like these and then wrestle with the application of the policy to new situations is essential to Gann’s pluralistic Jewish educational mission. In this case, the team’s robot may compete in the state competition, but the team members themselves may not participate. (The school is working diligently with FIRST to create an alternative to Saturday competitions but, to our dismay, has not succeeded yet.)  

It was a hard meeting, both because of our students’ disappointment and because of the nuances and complexity of our policy and our Jewish values. Team members challenged me with questions and shared their different perspectives. Together, the students and I reflected on the many choices we face as Jews living and striving to succeed in a non-Jewish world while preserving and celebrating our particular values, commitments, and identities. The students were incredibly thoughtful and respectful, but I could tell that not all of the students were happy with the school’s policy, with its particular application to their situation, nor with me.   

This week I returned from vacation to find on my calendar a meeting scheduled with one of the robotics’ team leaders. The student is one with whom I have a trusting and positive relationship. But, to be honest, my first reaction was “uh-oh.” I figured that she was coming to share upset sentiments of the team, to argue with our policy or my reasoning (something we encourage Gann students to do, respectfully, of course!), to offer new halachik (Jewish legal) arguments or loopholes, or just to vent her frustration.  

After the student arrived at my office, we had a few minutes of small talk, and then I asked, “So, what’s on your mind?” She replied, “Actually, on behalf of our team, I just wanted to say thank you. Thanks for taking the time to meet with the team. I think it was really important and helpful.”  

 I was amazed by her answer. This is a high school junior immersed in the most academically intense period of her high school career, whose robotics team is working day and night to prepare a robot for a competition that they cannot even attend. And she took the time to go out of her way to meet with me just to say “Thank you.”.  

 In God In Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, out of his concern for the spiritual decline in our modern, scientific, technological world: “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder (and appreciation and gratitude) declines.” The risk of our society’s increased focus on STEM and on students’ capacities to master and manipulate their world is a dulling of students’ core spiritual and emotional capacities to recognize that it is not they who are at the center of that world.  

 Gratitude and the middah (character trait, inner quality) of hakarat hatov (recognizing goodness in the world)—the abilities to see, feel, and express appreciation to and for ourselves, others, and the world around us—are timeless Jewish values (traditionally, Jews say at least 100 blessings each day) and 21st century skills. Both  parents and schools need to prepare students for the highest levels of academic performance and to cultivate in them moral and spiritual capacities—habits of mind and heart—that are essential for a life of happiness, responsibility, and service. 

When we do this, we help to develop students, like those on our robotics teams and the one with whom I met this week, whose world-class engineering capacities are matched by their world-class character and spiritual sensibilities. I am confident that I want our future in their hands.  

Shabbat Shalom,  

Rabbi Marc Baker  

 

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