Robotics and Tzedakah: A Creative Approach

05/23/2011 12:57 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2011

I thoroughly enjoy and am very passionate about my field: engineering and product design. For the past 25 years my career as an entrepreneur, inventor, writer and business executive has been in the high-tech arena.

I'm also an observant Jew. Judaism stresses a strong obligation to give back as much as we take from the community. As part of Hillel's famous maxim in Ethics of the Fathers says: "...And if I am (only) for myself, what am I...?" Giving tzedakah (charity) is one of the pillars of Jewish belief. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we believe our blessings for the coming year depend on the trilogy of repentance, prayer and tzedakah. The great sage, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, known also as Maimonides, stressed the importance of charitable giving in his writings. He said that there are eight degrees of tzedakah, the highest of which is helping someone become self-sufficient, and therefore, no longer in need of charity. The tzedakah of helping special needs students to become self-sufficient is the essence of Jewish special education. Concerned people contribute to this important cause in a variety of ways, ranging from financial donations to volunteer hours. My involvement has been the unlikely intersection of engineering and special needs children.

There was a time when it was thought that children afflicted with Down syndrome, autism or other mental, emotional or physical disorders could not be educated and were destined to merely be a burden on society. Fortunately, this has been proven wrong. The past 25 years have seen the Orthodox community developing its first comprehensive programs to educate those special children. Originally, grassroots organizations were formed by parents and special educators to provide a Jewish education for each child regardless of the degree of his or her disability. These volunteer organizations grew in size and in scope as the community as a whole realized that not only were these children educable, but they could become integral parts of the community. I have attended bar mitzvahs of children whose parents were told that they would never read. To listen to these children reading their parsha (portion) from the Torah in fluent Hebrew is amazing to behold.

The education of these children has evolved to include both religious and secular education. Programs such as the Sinai Schools and Jewish Education for Special Children, both in New Jersey, as well as the national organizations Yachad and Friendship Circle have been at the forefront of developing social and educational programs to help special needs children become educated in both secular and Jewish subjects, enabling them to become productive members of their home communities and integrate into society to the best of their abilities.

The obvious question is: What does my engineering and technology background have in common with educating special needs children? Seemingly nothing, except that I care deeply about both. I believe that creative breakthroughs can often result from the combination of two totally unrelated things. In 2004, I had an idea about how to combine these two disparate areas. I developed an educational program to teach robotics to special needs children. I know it sounds like a crazy idea, but the students love it! It is very hands-on and has a high "cool factor" and is a much sought after class. The students learn by doing; they create actual working robots.

I have worked extensively with the Sinai Schools at both the middle and high school levels. The Sinai curriculum mirrors the Jewish Day School model: Students spend half the day in Jewish studies and the other half in secular studies. Robotics has now become a part of their secular education. Since robotics is a multidisciplinary field, students have an opportunity to work on math skills, basic computer programming (using mostly graphically based languages), and some elementary physics and mechanics as well as design and building techniques. In one of the more advanced classes, they even learn basic electronics. Not every child functions on the same level, but the program is flexible enough to teach to the individual child.

But beyond the stated curriculum, what are these students really getting out of this course? The most important thing that I give them is success. A child with special needs is almost always focused on what he or she can't do. Most of the kids that I have taught absolutely believe that they are not capable of doing the tasks that I assign them. Robotics is a challenging subject, but one with an inherent motivation: building a working robot. Somewhere in the middle of the semester, they begin to realize what they can accomplish. Through creative problem-solving techniques they find their way to solutions. Somehow, to different degrees with different students, it all starts to click by the end of the semester.

The course culminates with a final sumo-robot tournament where they can battle each other and show off their robots to parents and school faculty. The pride in their eyes as they describe and introduce their own robotic creations to the assembled audience is priceless. I think and hope that the confidence that they gain through accomplishing something they did not believe possible stays with them as they approach their other academic, religious and life challenges. It is perhaps a small step, but a step nonetheless.

One of my overall goals is to teach my students to work around constraints. Instead of focusing on why something can't be done, I encourage them to let their imaginations run wild to come up with a wide range of ideas -- no matter how outlandish -- to solve the problem at hand. I think the tools of creative problem solving will help them far beyond their course in robotics. My recent book, "The Art of Invention," which focuses on creativity and idea development, was inspired in part by my experiences teaching students to cultivate a creative approach that they can use both inside and outside of the classroom.

The ARISE® program, as I call my robotics curriculum, has developed and grown from one course to four different courses over the past seven years. I am fortunate to be able to apply, in a unique way, something that I love to a worthwhile cause. If you can to take an area that you are very passionate about and direct it for the good of the community, it can be a very powerful and satisfying way of giving.