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Rutgers STEM Symposium at NMHS

Michelle Harle
Mr. Sheninger and professor Kostas Bekris at the end of the Symposium

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On Jan. 10, 2014, New Milford High School held their first ever STEM Symposium in conjunction with Rutgers University. Featuring six Rutgers professors and four New Jersey high schools, this unprecedented symposium was certainly notable.

The idea to hold a STEM symposium in the New Milford school district was the result of a tweet sent out by NMHS principal Eric Sheninger.

“I tweeted about how we were collaborating with MIT on our opencourseware and how students last year were featured in a case study that they did, and I was sort of bragging about that experience,” recalls Mr. Sheninger. “Waheed Bajwa from Rutgers saw my tweet and was like, ‘Hey, we should do something! We’re closer!’ and the rest is history.”

The event began with a breakfast for all participating members of New Milford High School’s STEM and Academies programs. While students relaxed and ate their food, students from schools such as North Arlington High School, Midland Park High School, and Neptune High School began to arrive.

Once all schools had arrived and students had settled down, Mr. Sheninger began the event with some opening statements. After the introduction, participants were informed of the NMHS technology-use policy.

Throughout the symposium, students and staff of all schools were welcomed to use the hashtag #RUNMStem on Twitter to express their thoughts and ask questions in relation to the presentations. While some students were a little nervous in the beginning to tweet while professors were speaking, most students eventually realized how tweeting helped to engage them in the symposium.

“I thought [tweeting] added a youthful vibe to the event,” explains NMHS senior Academy member Expedito Segovia. “It made [the experience] more engaging for the audience.”

Another senior academy member, Kelly McNaughton, had similar thoughts on the use of Twitter throughout the symposium. Not only did she participate in using social media, but she also felt that “as students, it was amazing to share reactions with each other as the speakers were explaining their research.”

Mr. Sheninger definitely agreed with his students. While Twitter may have been a great way to promote the accomplishments of NMHS, tweeting was also a great way to get students more involved in what they were learning.

“I think that one of our goals here is to empower students to use real world tools to do real world work, and the phone is just the notepad and pencil from the 20th and early 21st century,” explains Mr. Sheninger. “We really want students to share their knowledge, to post new questions, to engage others in conversation about what you’re learning about, and we also think [tweeting] is a great opportunity for us to showcase the opportunities that we present our students with at New Milford High School.”

Twitter would not have been nearly as exciting for students attending the symposium without the incredible presentations that took place.

The six Rutgers professors that were in attendance spoke on a variety of subjects. While the second speaker, Dr. Laleh Najafizadeh, spoke of future technology in relation to the moon and the human brain, Professor Janne Lindqvist explained how much information cell phone applications can access.

The STEM related talks did not end there. The fourth speaker, professor Predrag Spasojevic, gave some fascinating insight into the technology and process of building radios.

To end the incredibly insightful presentations was the fifth Rutgers professor, Kostas Bekris. Not only did professor Bekris explain multiple aspects of robotics, but he also used many helpful visuals to help students genuinely understand the lecture.

Out of all five presentations, one professor certainly stood out to a wide number of students. The first speaker of the symposium, RU professor Mark Pierce, was a favorite among many academy members.

“My favorite speaker was Mark Pierce,” states Segovia. “Not only because he is a biomedical engineer, which is what I plan on doing in the future, but also because his presentation shone a necessary light on the ugly monetization of cancer treatments. It was inspiring to hear someone who is so motivated in helping people get better through their work.”

McNaughton was in agreement with Segovia. She felt that, while the talk was extremely educational, Mark Pierce did a great job by making his research “easy to understand” and using “amazing graphs and charts.”

At the end of the day, students were quite happy with the symposium. The lectures were interesting, the professors were very funny, and students were able to learn about a variety of interesting topics. With these successes in mind, Mr. Sheninger still feels that there is more potential for future NMHS events.

“With any first inaugural event, there’s always so many things you want to change,” states Mr. Sheninger.

“Overall, we rated it as a success because we put it together, and we had six incredibly smart and accomplished Rutgers professors here at NMHS. Now we’re thinking about, ‘When we do it again, what will we change?’ One thing we want to change is adding interactive components that break it up. You know, shorter presentations where the students are actually doing some of the things that the professors are talking about. So, as we look to expand it, we want to add a lot of those hallmark components of effective instruction where students are more actively engaged in the process, they’re not just sitting there. Like anything else, we want to make it better. We want to make it an experience where students leave and have that ‘Wow! I wanna know more!’ factor.”

Regardless of the changes that Mr. Sheninger hopes to make for future NMHS symposiums and other similar events, participants in this STEM event truly seemed to enjoy every second of it.

“This event was such a great experience,” states McNaughton. “It motivated me to follow my passions just as all the speakers did.  [The professors] found what they love to do and are happy and successful. Overall, the symposium was an extremely motivational and inspirational experience!”

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Rutgers STEM Symposium at NMHS