BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - While some school districts in New Jersey and the country are planning on instituting STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) programs, the Berkeley Heights Board of Education is planning the expansion of their programs in the middle and high schools.

During a recent meeting of the Board of Education, James Finley, District Supervisor of Science, Arts and Computers and Drew Ziobro, Supervisor of Math and Practical Arts, gave a presentation "The State of STEM" in the district.  Beginning with a definition of STEM goals for the program as found in the District Strategic Plan, they then took a look at where the district is now in terms of courses, programs, electives and extra-curricular activities. 

Currently courses in AP Environmental Science and NGSS and Engineering Standards implementation are being offered at the high school. Next year AP Capstone and AP Computer Science Principles, along with Exploration of Mars and Introduction to AstroPhysics will be offered and there will be revisions to the Middle School Electives.

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In the coming years, there is even the possibility that a STEM Academy will be developed.

Electives at the high school include Robotics FTC, Robotics FTL, and at both the Middle and high schools, STEM League. In addition the district has hosted STEM League events at both the middle and high schools and have held Hour of Code events at the high school.  Next year the high school will induct the first members into the National Science Honor Society and participate in STEAM Tank. 

Following their presentation, six students involved in various components of the STEM program presented an overview of their activities during the past year. Angela Bonetti and Alex Ramos, members of the STEM League, Louis Pitingdo, is a member of the Robotics Team, Duytam Vu, a member of TEAMS (Technology Students Association) and Katherine Zhou and Pavni Bhardwaj, members of the MS Robotics group, spoke to Board of Education members, parents and members of the public about their STEM activities. They even had props with them, including two different styles of robots they made themselves and some other items.

Ramos described a project the STEM League team did for a competition that involved a glove that had to be able to sustain a space walk. "Our prototype for that ... actually won," Ramos said. The competition was held at Governor Livingston. 

In the next competition, they took on a wind turbine competition. All of the math and science required to be successful in these  competitions build on each other and are needed for the next competition. 

Their most recent competition was one in which they designed and built a small prototype of a portable shelter for refugees. As part of the competition, they had to follow specific rules and relate their design process to mathematics and science, Bonetti explained. They also had to do a presentation before the judges in which they explained their design matrix and their decision making process.

Bonetti said, the shelters "had to be able to sustain pressure changes" and be able to be covered by snow and keep warmth inside the structure - which is why the inside of the prototype is covered with tin foil -  but their shelter failed the pressure test and collapsed.  Before it collapsed, it "folded up really nicely," she said. Their plan was loosely based upon an umbrella and could be collapsed and moved into a location where it could be used as a shelter that could hold several families and, if needed, be moved again.  

Vu, who said, "I come from a family of engineers," joined a team which "allows me to build a foundation in engineering." During a recent competition, there were three phases, a test, an essay, which required research into contemporary technology, and the build part. Vu researched wave technology and wrote an essay on how it could be used to provide energy in New Jersey. 

As for the build portion, the team built a robotic arm that could transfer a water bottle from one location to another. Two of the three GL teams qualified for the Nationals in Orlando, Fla., later this year. 

Pitingdo, a member of the Robotics Team, brought his robot to the meeting. He said the national organization's goal is to get "students interested in STEM" and for them to learn "how to complete goals."  

For this competition, teams have to design the robot to reach certain goals, then build it and, finally, program it so it can complete the goals. The team was able to get a grant to get "an arena" in which the competitions are held, he said. "There are a lot of things that can go wrong with robots. You have to learn how to work with the downside,"  Pitingdo said.

The competitions are a lot of fun, with about 20 or so schools in it and you can see what the "other teams' strategies are" as well as the different designs, he said, adding, "the best part is being able to drive it. ..it's really fun!" 

Zhou, a sixth grader, is in the Robotics Club, run by an eighth grade teacher. They entered a Lego League competition which was held at a Bridgewater school with only a few weeks notice, while other teams had months of notice. Despite the short notice, 10 students from Columbia Middle School went to the competition and "got a lot of things done," she said. They built a robot out of Legos, created a few programs and "tried our best" at the competition. "We had to figure out a way to protect the endangered sea turtles" and settled on the idea of putting a dome over the eggs, so they would not be disturbed, Zhou said. 

They did pretty well in their first competition and "didn't place last at our first competition, which made us so happy," she said. They were 18 out of 24 teams. 

Bhardwaj said they are having another competition in May, in which they have to build a robot, code it to move items, including using color sensors to sort and move specific colored items to another place, on a game board. She showed the robot which is still being developed.

When they were done, the two gave a demonstration of their robot on the floor. 

When they left the table, it was to a huge round of applause.