Rethinking learning at World ORT

‘Our students understand how things work and they can create anything. We don’t tell them what to do. We tell them how to do.’

By ALAN ROSENBAUM
September 5, 2019 12:46
ORT Mexico maker space

ORT Mexico maker space. (photo credit: WORLD ORT)

Standing proudly in front of an array of 3-D printers, scanners, milling machines, computerized plotters, and CNC machines, Veniamin Vodopyan, head of the World ORT Maker Space at the Jewish Community Center in St. Petersburg, explains how his laboratory of complex devices continues to fulfill World ORT’s mission statement, almost 140 years after its founding.

World ORT was formed in St. Petersburg in 1880, and we decided to open a digital technology department here last year in order to create competitive specialists for the labor market. This is the key idea of World ORT, but in a modern way.” 

A series of interviews with World ORT staff in St. Petersburg, Johannesburg, and Israel illustrates how the organization is using a combination of breakthrough educational technology and individualized teaching to make education more effective for its worldwide network of students.

Veniamin Vodopyan, wiry, intense, and friendly, recalls how just over a year ago, principals of the Jewish schools in St Petersburg expressed interest in creating a program that would make their students more employable in the local labor market. “We needed to produce creative makers and ‘do-it-yourselfers’,” he says.

Vodopyan, who is an expert in ‘maker culture’ and innovative education, helped set up the ‘maker space’ at the community center. ‘A maker,’ Vodopyan explains, is someone who, using technology, can create almost anything from nothing. The ‘maker space’ contains plotters, scanners, a milling machine, 3-D printers, computers, computer numerical control (CNC) machines, and other devices that require advanced coding knowledge.

“We created an educational program, so that the kids will learn how to create and use these devices with different hi-tech machines.” Students learn specific skills, such as 3-D modeling, micro-controller programming, and designing, so that they can create various objects. The program attracts 120 students each month, and 700 unique visitors to the “maker space” lab each year, and is divided into two different age groups, with students ages 7-12 in one group and students ages 13-16 in the second group.

This year the students in the younger group created racing cars, and the older group created racing tracks in addition to the cars. “Because creative and analytic skills are in great demand,” he says, “we decided to encourage our students to be creative individuals.”

Vodopyan says that once students have completed the program, they will have the familiarity and skills to learn how to operate large computer-controlled machines, such as milling machines that are used in producing cars. After completing the program, he says that students will have learned both engineering skills as well as programming skills. Vodopyan notes that the center also hosts makers of “Tikkun olam” solutions, ideas and concepts that improve the world, and provide affordable solutions for disabled people. One group of students, he explains, created a special T-shirt with sensors that monitors temperatures and health status of the wearer. 

While maker culture requires precise measurements and design, Vodopyan notes that the students have a great deal of freedom and creativity. The students love the program and bring home everything that they create, whether they are model rockets or model cars.

“Since we use high-tech micro controllers and we use the most advanced devices they understand how things work and they can create anything. We don’t tell them what to do. We tell them how to do.”

Some 9,500 kilometers (nearly 6,000 miles) south of St. Petersburg, students at the King David High School, a World ORT-affiliated school in Johannesburg, South Africa, benefit from the technical expertise and overall enthusiasm of Jodene Pereira, a passionate and devoted history teacher in the school, whose skills have expanded to the world of do-it-yourself “maker culture” as well.

“Makerism is important,” she says, “because it gives them more of an edge when they go into university. Technology is so ‘in your face’ all the time, it is important to learn how to use technology, because ultimately that is what their future is going to be. We want to get them as prepared as they possibly can be.”

Innovation in Kiev; inset Robotraffic hands on (Credit: WORLD ORT)

Pereira incorporates maker technology into various subjects and disciplines at King David. For example, students learn how to sew, and make a wearable electronic device for their final exam. Other students learn engineering skills in a Lego robotics course. Biology students, she explains, use the maker space to print and design organs in order to better understand the human cardiovascular system. 

Pereira remains dedicated to history and has used maker technology in that area as well. “When we teach the students about the battles of World War One and trench warfare,” she explains, “we look at the different battles. The students research them and use clay, papier-mâché or cardboard and we create a stop-motion animation to make a story about the trenches. They use the laser cutter to print material for the trenches and work with the 3-D printer to print soldiers.”

Pereira is enthusiastic about the cooperation and resources of the World ORT network. “The organization is so focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and doing so many outreach programs in South Africa. World ORT has given us a platform to do a lot with our kids to get them exposed to other things, and to help us be in touch with the rest of the world.”

She recently attended a World ORT Hatter Technology Seminar in London in June. This year’s theme was “Bringing the maker culture into our schools.”

“I met 17 teachers from all over the world,” enthuses Pereira, “who I would not have had the opportunity to meet before, and it was all teachers with the same passion and interest as I have. Since the conference, we have been speaking non-stop, wanting to collaborate. If it wasn’t for World ORT, we wouldn’t have had those opportunities.”

Pereira recalls how one of her top students designed a prosthetic hand for a child burn victim. The student showed the prototype to a South African organization that assists burn victims. With the assistance of a local university that provided the use of an industrial 3-D printer, they created the prosthetic hand, and gave it to the child, changing his life. “Maker space is supposed to be about the community, about helping, and about outreach,” she says with a smile.  

Moshe Leiba, the recently appointed head of informal education at World ORT Kadima Mada in Israel, explains that the organization teaches entrepreneurship skills, leadership skills, and Jewish values. Kadima Mada has 12 centers for informal education throughout Israel, servicing 8,000 students.

One of its breakthroughs has been the development of informal education for the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population in Israel, with centers in Jerusalem, Safed, and soon, in Hatzor Haglilit, that teach robotics.

Another of Kadima Mada’s informal programs is YOUniversity, a program that allows children to experience the world of science and technology at a young age. Offered at a low cost, the program is particularly important for students who come from Israel’s periphery and helps bridge the gap between students from those areas and those in central Israel. “There are 100 student robotics groups in Dimona alone,” says Leiba.

Another Kadima Mada innovation is Future Learning Spaces, an evolution of smart classrooms. These “agile classrooms,” as Leiba terms them, can adjust from traditional, frontal learning spaces – where the teacher stands in front of a row of students sitting at their desks – to a learning circle of desks or work corners in a matter of seconds. The main objective of the Future Learning Spaces initiative is to introduce a different type of study strategy through the initiation of new teaching and learning experience. This flexibility of classroom structure emphasizes the concept that the student is the focus of the lesson, rather than the teacher.

From “Maker Spaces” to Future Learning Spaces, from computerized design to informal education, World ORT continues to be faithful to its original mission of helping Jews acquire the skills needed to be self-sufficient – wherever they live.


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