We were invited to the Zaniac Jersey City Grand Opening and Ribbon Cutting on Friday June 2, 2017. Zaniac is located in a bustling corner of the PowerHouse District and they are ready to bring STEAM programming to Jersey City. I met Sonali Pai, the owner of Zaniac JC, at the Jersey City Summit, where she challenged the educational panel to think outside their STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and bring more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) into the classroom. Pai is a strong advocate for this change in curriculum because art is in everything we do and is integral to a child’s development. She is passionate about bringing well-rounded educational options as well as being an active member of the Jersey City community.
So what is Zaniac? Zaniac is an after-school program “designed from the ground-up to prioritize fun, active engagement, and an integrated, multidisciplinary approach to problem solving. During the school year, Zaniac After-School Programs meet for 90 minutes, once a week for six weeks. During summer and vacation breaks, Zaniac Camps meet for 3 hours, every day for five days (M-F).” They have classes from fashion design and pattern making to coding and building. It is part of the larger Zaniac programming founded in 2012 and started by Paul “Zane” and Lisa Pilzer. The program has a focus on technology with state-of-the-art equipment, but has a comprehensive curriculum of STEAM rolled in (pun intended).
We were able to sit down and chat with Sonali and learn about her connection to Jersey City and why bringing Zaniac and STEAM to Jersey City was such an important mission for her.
What brought you to Jersey City?
We moved to Jersey City eight years ago and in this time we have seen our family grow to four. As a New Jersey native growing up in North Brunswick before attending Rutgers and moving to Hoboken, I have always loved Jersey City. While I worked at Amazon in Newark and my husband commuted to New Brunswick, Jersey City offered a great location with all of the attractions of New York, but with a significantly greater neighborhood mentality.
What inspires you about Jersey City?
My favorite thing about Jersey City is the sense of community the city fosters. I love having neighbors who have become family and seeing what a great place this is for raising my children. Over the last eight years I have seen Jersey City grow and change enormously. I love that Jersey City perfectly marries an urban feel with a very connected community.
What drew you to Zaniac?
I was initially drawn to Zaniac by the unique approach to learning - children are too busy having fun to realize they are learning. By engaging children in creative, conceptual problem solving, Zaniac allows students to grasp math and logic concepts in a way that feels like play. The space is inviting and inspiring to kids, so they are engaged the moment they walk in the door. Another differentiator of Zaniac is the low 5:1 instructor to student ratio and I loved the individual attention students would receive in the classroom.
One of my favorite aspects of Zaniac was that the instructors are exemplary high school and college students passionate about inspiring the next generation with STEAM. By utilizing this peer-to-peer learning model, instructors are empowered to lead a classroom and gain work experience, while also creating a very fun learning environment for the k-8 students.
Why is STEAM so important?
I like to say that STEAM is the new STEM. It is an approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics to teach problem-solving, collaboration, and creative thinking. This approach was formerly known as STEM, but at Zaniac, we incorporate the arts through fashion design, 3-D printing, and GarageBand to make music. If you think about it, in design and music, there are natural rhythms and processes which, at the fundamental level, are very scientific. So while the end result is art, the children use scientific principles to get there.
STEAM is vital for our children, as STEAM learners will be the innovators and leaders of tomorrow. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 17%, and 93% of parents want their children to learn computer science, but only 40% of U.S. schools currently teach it. Most jobs of the future will require a solid understanding of math and science, yet sadly, mathematics and science scores on average among U.S. students are lagging behind other developing countries. At Zaniac, we provide children with the quality educational tools they need at an early age to build their confidence in these subject areas so they can excel in the future.
What goals do you have for Zaniac?
To start off, I hope Zaniac becomes the go-to summer camp and after school program for children K-8. Our goal is for Zaniac to never feel like school, but instead an inviting environment in which kids can learn about everything from tinkering to Lego Robotics. As we continue to grow, I would like to see Zaniac become a staple of the Jersey City community and expand into additional STEAM resources for schools.
What goals do you have for Zaniac within the community?
As a resident of Jersey City and mother of two, I feel that there is a gap in science and technology in schools today. I hope to enhance what children are learning in school and inspire these students to feel that they can be builders and inventors too. Also this is a great job or internship opportunity for older students and this environment of role model instructors foster an ecosystem of creativity and imagination.
We are in the process of working with local organizations focused on women and children and their families that are underserved in Jersey City. We would like to provide STEAM related skills to make the children and families college and career ready, may that range from Math help all the way to teaching them advanced computer languages like Java or Python.
Photos provided by Zaniac Jersey City