28 February 2014
28 Adar I 5774
Yesterday I met with a computer science professor and Gann alumni parent who is passionate about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education and, in particular, about the value of students building, creating, and making things with their hands. He shared with me one of the assignments he gives his college students: they must work collaboratively to identify a problem in the world (not their own!), to come up with a creative solution to that problem, and then to construct their “solution.” This reminded me immediately of Gann’s IRAD (Independent Research and Design) course, through which our students have earned two patents for inventions— a weight stabilizing stretcher and magnetically supported shoes.
These kinds of projects and this kind of education are so powerful because they require empathy and compassion to see a need in the world that you want to meet, creativity and innovation to come up with solutions to that problem, and the capacities to make “stuff”, to put things together, and to work with your hands.
I was excited to share with the professor Gann’s vision for new courses in the area of science and engineering and our dream to build an Innovation Lab, a physical space in which students will be able to collaborate, to create, to experiment, to take risks, to build, take apart, and to build some more. This will be a cutting-edge space in which our world-class robotics teams, our young scientists and engineers, and our artists and entrepreneurs will work and learn. As we thought together about this lab and, more broadly, about the virtues of this kind of hands-on education, my professor friend reminded me that labs like these sometimes are referred to as “maker spaces.” The power of that term, he suggested, is that it honors not only the ideas side of innovation and creativity but also the doing and the doers. Some students, some people, have a passion and a gift for working with their hands, for putting things together, for making stuff. This is a space and an approach to learning that honors and develops them in ways that so often conventional learning does not. What a beautiful reminder that this kind of physical space and this vision of education is, in itself, a form of tikkun olam, a repairing, or, at least, an improving of an educational system that leaves too little room for so many learners to succeed and thrive.
How appropriate that this meeting took place just before we conclude our reading of the Book of Shemot (Exodus) with yet one more Torah portion, Parshat Pikkudei, dedicated to the details of the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle. In chapter 39 alone, according to my counting, the Hebrew root ע-ש-ה, asah—which means to do or to make—appears 26 times! I admit that I often skim through the extraordinary detail and beauty of the materials that were used for this making-process, for I am like the stereotypical, verbal-conceptual processor who has little patience for reading directions and who is happy to skip over details in search for philosophical or spiritual meaning. Yet, this parsha and my conversation yesterday are profound reminders that we cannot overlook the significance of the making and the importance, the holy calling, of the makers. This isn’t about the new idea or even the creativity behind the mishkan; this is about the maaseh, the doing, the putting together of a sacred creation.
Many scholars point out that the human maaseh of building the mishkan parallels the Divine maaseh of the creation of the world—the language is strikingly similar. We need to create opportunities for the makers among us to learn, develop, and make their unique contributions to our community not only because we believe in “multiple intelligences” and “differentiated instruction” but also because we cannot create or repair our world without them.
Rabbi Marc Baker