Tradition and technology are often viewed as polar opposites. An institution is either steeped in history or it’s at the cutting edge of contemporary culture. Tools are either analogue or digital. But that’s not how Rutgers Preparatory School sees things.

“Innovation is tied up in the history of the school, because we’re more than 250 years old,” says Kevin Merges, Director of the school’s Innovation Center. “And it’s deliberate that I connect those two statements. To survive, we’ve had to embrace change. We were educating children here for 150 years before pencils were invented – so we’ve historically integrated new ideas, whether that’s pencils or iPads.”

Resistance is futile, he adds. “Some teachers would previously have argued that if a student didn’t know how to properly sharpen a quill they were never going to be successful. Things change. We don’t teach quill-sharpening any more. We don’t teach Microsoft Office any more either, because our kids already know how to use Word and Excel.”

Based on a 42-acre site in New Jersey, Rutgers is a private, co-educational preparatory day school that educates 650 children from kindergarten through to high school (Grade 12). Established in 1766 by order of King George III, the school is international, with more than 50 languages spoken among its students. “People choose our school for the academic background, the small classes and the diverse atmosphere,” says Merges. “They find out about the technology later.”


Technology for all

That offer is broad. Computer science classes go beyond the curriculum, with high-school students designing apps and making 360-degree films. “About six years ago, we realised that, in that highest-level class, we’d never had a female student. Not one. So I spoke to some young women I’d taught who were now working in tech companies and I asked them what we could do better.”

That feedback led to a significant shift in Rutgers’ approach. “We started teaching coding in kindergarten and, every year since, we’ve had to look at our programme throughout the school because the kids coming up are more and more advanced. We have to add to the curriculum in every area to keep them interested. And we’ve seen a huge growth; we started our robotics programme, we launched our Innovation Centre to support student start-ups, and we brought in virtual reality and augmented reality. There’s now no difference between the number of girls and the number of boys choosing computer science.”


virtual inspiration

Today, every lower-school student, from kindergarten through to Grade 5, benefits from educational virtual reality or augmented reality experiences. “We’ve had students visit the Ellis Island of 100 years ago in virtual reality when they were studying immigration,” says Merges. “Our second graders went into 360-degree virtual reality bat caves with bats flying all around them – and those kids said it was the best day of school they’ve ever had. As a teacher, there’s nothing better than hearing that!”

It’s natural that technology, innovation and equality of opportunity take centre stage at Rutgers, says Merges. “We were the first school in New Jersey that took girls. We’ve always looked to the future and tried to make things better, because we know that life is going to change for these kids. How can we teach them to succeed if we’re not willing to change ourselves? That’s what a teaching job is! You need to keep every kid moving forward. Calculators are better than slide rules. It’s not hard to embrace new things if you see them the right way.”