The (Zoom)ing Change

SDJA Students open up about their “quaran-cation”

By Ariela Cohen (‘21)

Along with the rapid spread of COVID-19 comes the need for adaptation. Just like a student vexed by their math test, the world has had to find solutions to a problem that is hard to understand. As part of SDJA’s response to this pandemic, before the campus closed in mid-March, multiple classes were used to help teachers and students become familiar with Zoom. “At first…we kind of took it as a joke,” Fania Pupko (‘21) comments. “But, as the situation began to get more severe and virtual learning turned into our reality, all of us, students and teachers, are making huge efforts to make it work.”

On March 12, the last day that classes took place on campus, various students showed their excitement for shifting to virtual learning by screaming with joy and jumping up and down with their classmates. However, their perspective on the situation did not take too long to shift, either. Daniella Surpin (‘21) states, “It feels like I have been getting a lot more homework from my teachers. But, I wonder if this has any connection to classes being online?” 

Samantha Veinbergs (‘21) adds, “As days passed this ‘quaran-cation’ was not as fun as I thought it would be, it actually kept getting more and more serious and dangerous.” 

Trotta Zoom

Coach Nicole Trotta conducts her Anatomy and Physiology class online as her students pay close attention. (Photo by Ariela Cohen (‘21))

Students had, perhaps, blindsided themselves since the very beginning by only focusing on the fact that campus was about to close. As Dean Sandler (‘21) comments, “It’s very stressful how my weekly routine changed so fast. I had to adjust myself and get used to many new shifts in [just a few] days.”

Teachers, on the other hand, had a different outlook on the next few months. Coach Nicole Trotta, who teaches Anatomy and Physiology in the Maimonides Upper School, approached the situation with a very open mind. She mentions a proverb that helped her at the beginning and throughout this journey: “Expect nothing. Gain everything.” Coach Trotta has been excited to take on a new experience and challenge. However, one of the challenges she has had to face is the physical barrier between her students and herself: the computer. “It’s very hard giving a lesson and not being able to read my students.” she explains. “When we were on campus, I was able to sense the energy of the room or a particular student, gauging whether they understand the information, if they are engaged or if something is wrong.” Trotta adds, “I miss seeing my students!” 

Although this pandemic has been extremely challenging to cope with, it has definitely allowed everyone to learn and grow. At first, students felt very overwhelmed with all the changes, but lately they have been better able to manage their work to finish the semester in a positive way just in time for what is sure to be an unpredictable summer.

Programed for Victory

Lions robotics team ends its most successful season yet

By Ana Gerson (’21)

The San Diego Jewish Academy robotics team competed in its first meet of the season on Sunday, December 15th, following their 7th place win in a meet the previous year. The well-oiled machine, led by co-presidents Jesse Gan (‘21) and Noah Katcher (‘20), has worked hard to improve both its robot and their code.

Robotics Meet #1

The team intently watches their robot at their first meet on December 15, 2019. Photo by Micheala Simble (21’).

The team started preparing for meets months in advance, coming together on Thursdays and Sundays to work. Mr. Patrick Hagerman, SDJA science teacher and the faculty adviser for the robotics team, says that they “have always had a strong building team; the mechanical engineering side has always been strong. We have focused a lot of energy in the past few years on improving our fundraising and marketing. We have been trying to raise our profile, not just on campus, but around the area.” 

The team is made up of different subgroups. Captains Gan and Katcher oversee the work done by all the groups. The builders, led by Jed Edelstein (‘21), construct the robot from scratch. The coders, led by Devin Marcus (’22), focus on the autonomous portion of the game; they make sure the robot can move without anyone manually driving it. 

Ron Gneezy (‘21) leads the wiring team, who are “basically the middle ground between the code and the hardware,” explains Gan. Yin Wenduo (’22) leads the crew that sets up the field for practice, so they know the rule manual inside and out. 

The team has recently added Ariela Cohen (‘21) to their marketing team. Ariela, who joined in mid-September, describes her experience as “fun and interesting. I don’t think that people realize that there is more to it than coding.” 

One of the marketing team’s most recent projects was designing the annual hoodie. The team reaches out to donors every year, and wears their logos on the hoodie during competitions. Micheala Simble (21’), who is leading the marketing effort this year, joined the team during her freshman year. She describes her experience as, “a fun way to connect and learn from the people around me in an exciting environment.” 

 

Jessie & Jimmy for Robotics

Jimmy Lai (‘23) and President Jesse Gan (‘21) show off this year’s hoodie.  Photo by Ana Gerson (’21).

Excitement seems to be a common theme among team members when discussing their experience. Ariela Moel (‘22), team note-taker, describes the December 15th meet as “a collaborative team effort. You feel nervous. No one feels prepared because we don’t know which team will be paired with us, but we are always excited to find out.” 

Lions robot builders have competed in four meets this season. The final one was held on Sunday, February 9, in the SDJA gymnasium. Adviser Mr. Hagerman noted, “I was very proud of our team this meet. I think we had our best technical performances.” The team is continuing to work hard during their off-season, and are ready to score higher than ever in the coming year. 

Innovation Sensation!

Technological Advances Strike SDJA

By Ariela Moel (‘22)

 

Hidden below the old library area in the school’s A building secretly lies a little-known gem of  San Diego Jewish Academy. This beneficial learning environment boasts abundant technology and holds the key to innovation. What is this incognito luxury? The virtual reality lab! Even though it is relatively unknown now, students will soon become more familiar with the technological wonderland that SDJA has to offer. 

Mr. Kwaku Aning, director of the school’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Thinking (CIET), gave students new opportunities when his lab debuted in 2018, and again when he developed a new station located in the art room which followed it the next year. Both labs give students the ability to draw, create, and learn through artificial intelligence and augmented reality. Sophomore Rena Novom (‘22), has recently joined an art class in which she uses the VR. Rena mentions that VR lets her “manipulate the art form more than in a real-life situation.” 
VR Lab #1

Mr. Aning’s captivating VR Station, full of opportunities for SDJA’s students. Picture by Ariela Moel (‘22)

And this is only a small percentage of the enhancements SDJA has developed since the beginning of this school year. Other than the wonders which the virtual reality lab brings to the community, there have been other modifications made to the robotics team, classes added to the MS and HS curricula, and a newly established MS robotics program. As Jessie Gan (‘21), co-captain, along with Noah Katcher (’20), of the “7609 Lions” robotics team, mentions, the team has recently “taken advantage of the 3D printers.”  She notes that “now, more people on the team have those marketable 3D printing skills needed for our robotics use.”

Though unknown to many students, the VR labs are a school treasure. Whether it comes to building a 3D art model in Google Tilt Brush, an application made specifically for painting in new perspectives, or simply playing a game, students are allowed to see the unique window of high tech that is the VR.

Anyone interested in visiting one of the labs simply has to reach out to him. As Mr. Aning mentions, “We have several headsets (wired and wireless) and students can always email me if they would like to meet me during POD to try it out and explore how it works.”  

As if this VR station were not enough, Ms. Nebo has created a second VR lab, this one located in the art studio. When asked how it has improved SDJA’s art department, Ms. Nebo explains that “In the visual art class, we start off with a lot of paper and pencil and painting, kind of the more traditional art techniques and I think a lot of kids are intimidated by that because they don’t think of themselves as artists, and I feel like the VR gives them a different way to be able to express themselves.” With the implementation of the Occulus Quest, a type of VR headset, Ms. Nebo and her students have been able to benefit from the wireless technology.

VR Lab #2
Ms. Nebo’s new virtual reality headset which helps create student masterpieces. Picture by Ariela Moel (‘22)

Although virtual reality is exciting, it is not the only type of innovation at SDJA. “I think that when you challenge kids, you challenge students to try something new, and there’s a camaraderie that comes out of that,” says Mr. Marc Muroff, the AP Computer Science Principles teacher. When asked what innovations he has seen this year at SDJA, he responded, “I think SDJA offering two middle school programming classes and a full-year robotics class is very innovative.” Most people have generalized the word ‘innovation’ to be strictly technological, yet this isn’t so. As Mr. Muroff suggests, innovations can include allowing young students to take a leap into the world of experimental thinking in class and in the outside world.

The leaders in CIET have recently implemented a few new technologies at SDJA. After being asked about the upcoming projects or ideas for the school, Mr. Aning mentioned a new innovation center. “The plans are to create a space here on campus where students can conceive, create, and present new innovations in addition to incorporating these innovation skills into their school work,” he states.

Luckily, SDJA’s faucet of technology doesn’t stop running there. As well as the innovation center, there have been many new components in CIET. “I have seen a lot of amazing things this year!” Mr. Aning exclaims. “This include kindergarten students using AR to share their research about young activists with their parents, 5th-grade students using AI to develop adaptive solutions for people with disabilities, and high school students researching escape rooms to learn about film making, storytelling, and math,” 

The many opportunities that SDJA offers its students are nothing short of sensational. As Ms. Alicia Johal, CIET assistant director, mentions, “Teachers and students across campus have done some amazing work to embed innovative teaching practices into their curriculum. I have been excited by all of it – augmented reality experiences, virtual reality, robotics, creative video productions, podcasting, coding, and more!”

So many cutting edge additions to the school in such a short time confirm San Diego Jewish Academy as an authentic innovation sensation. As SDJA continues thinking creatively, the school community can look forward to even more progress and improvements in the near future. Stay tuned!

 

Firewall Frustration

SDJA students speak out against Internet blocks on controversial websites 

By Gabriela Wellman (‘20)

 

Internet Firewall by Elizabeth Nebo

Illustration © Elizabeth Nebo (2019)

 

While searching for information for an assignment on Roe v. Wade, Galia Cohen (‘20) looked up plannedparenthood.com only to be met with the following message, “Your connection is not private, please navigate back to safety.” Shrugging it off, Cohen attempted to open the second hit from her Google search–‘abortion’–but once again, she encountered the same message redirecting her back to the main Google page. 

“It was so irritating,” Cohen explains. “Planned Parenthood is a way to access important information on issues you might not know well enough. The school’s WiFi prohibiting access to it felt like limiting our access to information.” 

Ana Gerson (‘21), a student in AP U.S. Government who faced the same impediment as Cohen, says, “It made me feel outraged and confused. I feel like by blocking access for students on that website, the school is trying to influence us into believing something we don’t necessarily believe.”

Similar to AP U.S Government, Judaism and the Body, and Jewish Ethics are classes that push the boundaries of traditional classroom topics. Just like with Cohen’s and Gerson’s experiences with Planned Parenthood, students in these classes were asked to do school-sponsored research and were also surprised to find that websites containing sensitive information were blocked by the SDJA WiFi’s Firewall. 

“As a parent, especially thinking of middle school students, I would want to know that they have the freedom to be on the Internet while safety features are in place,” History Department Chair, Mrs. Susan Wu adds, “But I do not understand the block on Planned Parenthood.”

Dean of Students, Mrs. Anna Falkiewicz agrees that the block, specifically on this website, sends a negative message to pro-choice individuals, making them believe that this is not something our community supports, which, she clarifies, is not the intention. 

Of course, it is understandable that parameters must be put in place in order to ensure that students navigate safely and resourcefully on the school WiFi, but, based on conversations with students and teachers, there seems to be an overarching request to widen those parameters. 

Gali Laska (‘20) thinks that “these parameters are valid, to a certain extent. There are some websites, for example, those which include inappropriate information or photos, that should not be able to be reached under school WiFi, but anything containing valuable information to students should not be blocked.”

But, the school’s WiFi firewall raises some questions: What is being blocked? And why? 

Mrs. Sara Hansen, English Department Chair, describes how every year she demonstrates to students her ability to freely access Martinlutherking.org, a website whose name sounds credible but is actually owned by the KKK. How is it that such sites can be visited, but truly informative ones, such as plannedparenthood.com are blocked?

The Lion’s Den decided to reach out to the school’s IT Director, Mr. Chris Hill, to find out more about the firewall and how the restriction might be used more effectively. Apparently, SDJA’s firewall works by identifying and flagging certain words or phrases, such as ‘drugs,’ and ‘sex,’ and blocking out websites that includes those red-flags. 

“[It blocks] any standard sites that aren’t appropriate for kids or employees at work,” Hill clarifies. But, regardless of how this block happens, many students can agree that widening the parameters on technology would enhance their learning experience. 

Jimmy Cohen (‘22) is among a number of students offering potential solutions and next steps toward fixing the block. “First and foremost, I think that [plannedparenthood.com] has to be unblocked immediately,” Cohen says. “I also think that, at the very least, we need to be provided with a list of approved websites for research, especially on these more controversial topics such as abortion and drugs.”

Another popular suggestion around campus is the idea of a ‘teacher override,’ a solution allowing students researching topics for a specific class to request access to blocked websites directly from their teachers. Teachers could then override the firewall’s system on those specific devices. Given the amount of student interest in improving Internet access, it remains to be seen what the solution may be.

Amidst the controversy, it is reassuring to hear that SDJA administration and the IT department are not seeking to steer students’ minds with any political bias.

Mrs. Falkiewicz reiterates the fact that, “SDJA values individuals’ own opinions on political issues and is, by no means, trying to formulate opinions for its students.” 

Hopefully the entire student body can look forward to a solution that fosters the use of the latest technology in their learning in a way that doesn’t expose them to distracting, and even harmful, information.