Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

In New Jersey, Hands-On Science Learning Thrives During the Pandemic

April 22, 2021

STEAM Expeditions REM 2

By Robert O’Donnell, Jr. (NJ ’13)

COVID-19 kept STEAM Expeditions students out of their New Jersey classroom, but thanks to technology and a team of dedicated educators, hands-on science learning thrived.

For the past 11 years, STEAM Expeditions (formerly called Project Reservoir) has been an integral component of the Christa McAuliffe School (P.S. #28) in Jersey City, New Jersey, where I teach middle school science. This afterschool program focuses on students’ efforts to address environmental issues, identify problems, design innovative solutions, and solicit community support for their vision. Along the way, students enjoy a unique educational experience that lets them apply their academic skills to real world situations.

Our students shine on the national stage and have represented the program in STEM competitions in New York, D.C., Florida and Costa Rica. Over the years the students of STEAM Expeditions have accumulated over half a million dollars in prizes, trips, savings bonds and grants. Each team’s success ensures that the teams of tomorrow will have the necessary funding to carry out their projects.

Toward the end of last summer, I received an assortment of messages through Instagram and Twitter from my students, all centered on a common question: “Mr. OD, will we have STEAM Expeditions this school year?” We had been learning remotely since March 2020 and were uncertain if we would return to our school building during the 2020-21 school year, so I was unsure how to reply. But as more messages flooded my inbox, it became clear just how much the program meant to our students.

“We all agreed we would do whatever it took”

After consulting with my colleagues on the project, Christopher Brown, Joel Naatus and Malissa Yabut, we all agreed we would do whatever it took to provide our students with the opportunity to experience STEAM Expeditions during the global pandemic. Our school administrators, Frank Borroto and Elaine Domingo, were equally excited and supportive in our collective decision to keep our program as a constant for our students.

Given the exploratory and hands-on nature of STEAM Expeditions, and the fact that we would be fully remote for the foreseeable future, we embarked on what we anticipated to be the most challenging year of the program. Ironically, this year’s class has the highest number of participants ever: 57 students representing 14 teams across sixth to eighth grade.

Our teams developed their projects in biweekly Zoom meetings and breakout rooms. Outside of scheduled meetings, teams maintained communication with us through text messaging, Instagram, Twitter, email, and independent team Zoom meetings. As I do each year, I asked our community members to sponsor teams via Facebook. More than 50 individuals responded to provide each of our students with their own team shirts.

Our 14 teams focused on an array of topics including canine waste, underwater robotics, ultraviolet cleaning, invasive insects, carbon sequestration, plastic waste, rainwater
conservation and mosquito control, energy conservation, duckweed as biofuel, water filtration, air pollution, oil pollution, remote environmental monitoring, and ocean pollution. Nine of our 14 teams entered competitions, including eCYBERMISSION, Samsung Solve for Tomorrow, and our local Jersey City Public Schools Sustainability Challenge.

Here are a few of the projects our STEAM Expeditions teams worked on this year:

STEAM Expeditions REM 1000w

R.E.M. (Remote Environmental Monitoring)
8th grade team

In 2019-20, the R.E.M. team won the middle school grand prize in the national Lexus Eco Challenge for its work using remote sensors to detect air pollution. This year, R.E.M. reunited to focus attention on providing schools remote sensing equipment for early detection of water leaks and temperature drops, which put pipes at risk of rupturing. Two schools in Jersey City had been significantly damaged by floods—damage that could have been minimized if remote sensing technology had been in place.

The R.E.M. team discussed their work in a Zoom meeting with the New York City Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer. The office included a summary of the team’s work on page 29 of its March 2021 report, “IoT Strategy: The New York City Internet of Things Strategy.”

STEAM Expeditions rain 1000w

R.A.I.N (Reuse Aqua in Nature)
7th grade team

The R.A.I.N. team entered the eCYBERMISSION competition with a project on harvesting rainwater. Here is their abstract:

The R.A.I.N team collects wasted rainwater and uses it to water plants in front of our school because they do not get the proper care they need. It is hard to give them the proper care during the summer because no one is around. In addition to harvesting rainwater, we are also solving the problem with mosquitoes. Mosquitoes spread diseases around the world to humans, which results in one million deaths per year. They also bite humans during the warmer months, which causes irritation and swelling.

In order to solve this problem, we started by researching both topics, reading online books, articles, and websites. We read relevant issues, like what mosquitoes are attracted to, what diseases they spread, what solutions already exist; and different types of techniques for rainwater harvesting, possible solutions, its benefits, and how it relates to our project. We started to brainstorm prototype concepts.

Since we are remote learning, online tools became our best help. We sketched designs, created prototype designs on two websites called TinkerCad and Google Sketchup. We went through four different prototypes to finally find the best concept and design. Our device is named Rainwater And Mosquitoes Trap (R.A.M.T.). We discovered a way to reuse rainwater and trap mosquitoes at the same time.

STEAM Expeditions insect 1000w

Invasive Insect Eradication Movement (I.I.E.M.)
6th grade team

The sixth-graders on the I.I.E.M. team, which studied invasive lantern flies, also entered eCYBERMISSION. Their abstract:

Lantern flies are insects that feed on crops and trees and their population is spreading across the United States. Our research focused on identifying the season they were active the least so we could develop a plan on removing them with the greatest success.

These insects lay egg masses. The egg masses can be scraped off, hence the prototype we made named the Aerial Invasive Egg Remover, or A.I.E.R. for short. We came up with this idea because we read an article that said 80% of the egg masses are high in trees.

Our prototype is a scraper-like object that contains a box for collecting the removed egg masses. We designed it to attach to an adjustable 20-foot pole used for swimming pools. What we are doing right now to stop the invasive species is we are testing our prototype to determine how successful it will be in removing egg masses in nature. To replicate this, we tested our prototype by applying mortar on a house and we removed it successfully.

We are currently working with professionals in the field of entomology to identify known sites in nature that we can visit and test our prototype. The success of our prototype will assist our community and beyond in now having a means of removing lantern fly eggs that were too high in trees to be removed before our team was created.

Each of our 13 teams required specific materials and resources to build and test prototypes. In order to accomplish this during remote instruction, students composed a list of necessary materials and emailed me their wish lists. When supplies arrived at my house, I delivered them to the student that would be first in prototype construction for their team. When teams required a 3-D print of a prototype, they emailed my colleague, Joel Naatus, and he printed from our school’s MakerBot printers and left the item at the security desk for student pickup.

It's now Earth Day, and the majority of our sixth and seventh grade teams have concluded work on their team projects. Our graduating eighth grade students are creating and scoring an assessment that will determine the members of our STEAM Expeditions Class of 2021-22. Once students are selected, our eighth graders will coordinate a comprehensive induction ceremony for our new members. 

In a school year filled with uncertainty and disconnect, STEAM Expeditions was needed more than ever to provide students (and teachers) with a sense of normalcy and hope. We are grateful that our students challenged us to maintain the program, and we respect and love the extraordinary efforts that each of them put forth.


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