LIVINGSTON, NJ — Although the students involved in the “Technology for a Change” project at Livingston Public Schools (LPS) will not be able to accept their “School Leader” award from the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) in person, the group was recently honored by the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) for not only earning this prestigious award on behalf of the district, but also making a real difference within the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Technology for a Change was founded shortly after the novel coronavirus hit New Jersey and it became apparent that personal protective equipment (PPE) was going to be in short supply. Over the last several months, students and staff from the LPS Departments of Technology and Family Consumer Science have utilized the district's 3D printers and sewing machines to produce and distribute thousands of 3D-printed face shields and masks, sewn masks, ear savers and surgical caps to those on the front lines.

Earlier this month, NJSBA selected LPS as one of only three New Jersey school districts to receive a 2020 School Leader Award for implementing a “creative and effective program that meets the challenges of remote learning.”

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Representing the award-winning group of students and faculty members during last week’s LBOE meeting were Robert Rolling, LPS Supervisor of Business Technology Education and Engineering; Ken Zushma, a technology education teacher at Heritage Middle School; Jeanne Ziobro, a technology teacher at Livingston High School (LHS); and seniors Isabella Icolari, Guy Rettig and Brian Tsymbal, who presented additional details about the project and thanked the LPS administration for its support in this endeavor.  

“This was something that came together amongst some technology and engineering educators in northern New Jersey, and it was a specific colleague of mine, Danielle Romero in the Chatham School District, who was toying with the idea of producing PPE and asked if we wanted in knowing how our program has been,” said Zushma. “It's worth saying that there were other colleagues of mine in other districts whose administration said no and that they didn't want to participate. I was so proud of the district and the support that they gave us. Then when Rob rolled it out to the rest of our department, Mrs. Ziobro found an excellent group of students [who] took this to a level far beyond what I thought was even imaginable, and I'm so proud of them.”

Ziobro, who acknowledged Superintendent Dr. Matthew Block, LPS Business Administrator Steve Robinson and the Livingston community at-large for “their assistance and donations,” expressed pride in Icolari, Rettig and Tsymbal for their “hard work and unwavering dedication to the project.”

Icolari, who served as the project creator and student coordinator in addition to designing the website, managing the social media pages and sewing masks and surgical caps to contribute to the donations, explained that she was inspired to get involved after seeing a photo of Zushma’s room overflowing with 3D printing machines.  

“It was quite an incredible sight, and one that immediately got my wheels turning when I saw what he was doing,” said Icolari, who then proposed using LHS students to help spread Zushma’s initiative. “The technology department at LHS is filled with students and teachers dedicated to the exploration and use of new technologies.

“Without a doubt, remote learning was proving to be quite a hurdle for us, especially in such an involved field. So I knew that what Mr. Zushma was doing was feasible for us at the high school, and I knew it would take just a push to pull everyone together…Everyone was so quick to jump on board to help, which is a clear testament to the kind and considerate people that make up Livingston High School.”

Once equipped with machines that were delivered from LPS classrooms to each of their homes, seven LHS students and various LPS technology teachers spent the first week collecting and distributing materials needed to construct the PPE and brainstorming ways to promote the endeavor within the community.

Icolari ultimately spearheaded the marketing aspect of the project by designing a full website, flyers, press releases and social media pages across various platforms, including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

“This project was a culmination of everything I'd ever learned,” she said. “In what was my own self-made capstone project, I had the opportunity to create something meaningful not just for myself, but for the community at-large.

“While producing an initiative of this scale wasn't something I'd ever done before, I put trust into myself as a creator to successfully manage this project. After all, I completed four years of high school surrounded by the most incredible teachers preparing me with the skills necessary to orchestrate such a collaborative effort.”

She also spoke about how demanding the project was, stating that it required “constant communication between all moving pieces” and a regular social media presence across all platforms with posts that included new graphics, photos and donation updates. This is in addition to keeping production on track, collecting materials, creating the PPE and distributing it to area hospitals, police and fire departments, long-term care facilities and other organizations in need.

“My living room had been transformed into a business—with boxes of materials, my sewing machine, computers and pages of notes to keep track of—but, most importantly, the interactions Technology for a Change facilitated was most inspiring to me,” said Icolari. “I saw how everyone came together not only because of the crisis, but because of the hope our initiative gave them.

"The doctors and first responders showed a deep appreciation for what were able to offer them; and, I must say, the chance to see a piece of fabric in my living room transform into an essential piece of protection for someone risking their life has a weight insurmountable to anything I've ever experienced.”

Although the need for PPE has “calmed down almost entirely,” Icolari expressed that the ability to reflect on the project is “just as important as what [the group was] able to accomplish.”

“The way I see it, Technology for a Change exhibited the importance of community, especially in times of distress,” she said. “I believe it should be a framework for community involvement in Livingston in the future and proof of what can happen if we put trust into the minds of the youth.”

With a mother who worked on the front lines during the pandemic, Tsymbal said he was inspired by her bravery and jumped at the opportunity to do something that would support essential workers in an impactful way.

“When Mrs. Ziobro came to me with the suggestion that I join Technology for a Change, I jumped at the offer,” he said. “It was then that I realized I had both the method and the means to help save lives. Seeing the effects our team had in the community was a feeling I will cherish.”

As Rettig dropped off the manufactured inventory at hospitals and other medical facilities each week at the height of the pandemic, he recalled that “everyone was always so appreciative” of the group’s efforts to continue providing this service, giving him "a great feel of how [Technology for a Change] was helping out during these troubling times.”

“Being told that doctors from all over the area were taking handfuls of equipment at a time into their own offices gave me a relief that our nonstop work paid off,” he said.

The students were met with a virtual standing ovation from LBOE members and others in attendance during last week’s board meeting.

Rolling chimed in to reiterate that all Livingston residents should be incredibly proud of these students and recognize that they are a product of the outstanding community.

“This project lent itself to a real-world application of the content that the students learn in class, and it was civic-minded and really allowed the students to engage in what was a universal human experience,” he said. “All of those things I just mentioned check boxes in the 21st Century skills in terms of the curriculum components that we have…

“This was about community, and it was really special to see how they took it and to hear some of the stories…It takes a village to create what we have here. To instill the values and develop the maturity that you just saw from the three students who spoke there and everybody else who was involved, it's really something that is special and that you should be really proud of.”

At the conclusion of the presentation, LBOE President Ronnie Konner made a point to recognize the faculty members involved as well as the students.

“Our technology department goes by the hashtag #LivingstonLeads, and you are truly an example of that,” she said. “The students and the staff all together really embody our mission of ‘learning, creating, contributing and growing.’ Your work contributed to the community, and we applaud you.”

Block agreed with both Konner and Rolling, stating that the community “desperately need[s] to remember those positive things that have come out of the last seven or eight months” and that this project was “a testament to how special” the LPS community is for “seizing an opportunity to make a positive difference in a really difficult time.”

“I think we've all learned over the last eight months that learning doesn't just happen in a classroom,” said Block. “Sometimes the best learning and growing happens outside.”

Icolari pointed interested community members to the Technology for a Change website for additional success stories, instructional lessons and a blog that provides consistent updates on the group’s donations.

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