Emily Mandelbaum and Svapnil Patel, seventh-graders in St. James School, Red Bank, demonstrate the building and operation of their solar oven, which was recognized by the Diocese’s Network of Catholic School Families. Hal Brown photo
Emily Mandelbaum and Svapnil Patel, seventh-graders in St. James School, Red Bank, demonstrate the building and operation of their solar oven, which was recognized by the Diocese’s Network of Catholic School Families. Hal Brown photo
The juxtaposition was uncanny, as Catholic students from across New Jersey gathered in the State House in Trenton – third oldest of its kind in the country – to explain how their frontier-breaking STEM projects were used to impact communities both at home and across the globe.

Kicking off Catholic Schools Week in the state’s capitol Jan. 27 were students, teachers, principals and parents from all five of the state’s (arch)dioceses, each group eager to celebrate their schools and share how their projects represented exemplary Catholic education.

Photo Gallery: Catholic Schools Week at the State House

“We want families to know that [Catholic schools] are competitive, that we have very strong STEM programs,” said Frances Koukotas, director of the Network of Catholic School Families in the Diocese of Trenton, as she reflected on the theme for this year’s annual statewide project students were invited to participate in: “Our Catholic Schools Use STEM to Solve a School, Local Community or Global Problem.”

The opportunity to present for their peers and representatives, as well as to hear from state legislators, was a two-fold benefit, Koukotas said.

“It shines a brighter light on the work our schools are doing,” she said. “The public becomes more aware, and the students are in turn influenced by the other students and legislators. And when we start talking about the state budget, [technology funding] helps drive a lot of the technology available in our schools, to keep the tech current.”

Following a tour of the State House’s notable features, students and school representatives listened as the proclamation of Catholic Schools Week by Gov. Phil Murphy was read aloud by a representative from his office. Dr. George Corwell, director of the office of education for the New Jersey Catholic Conference – the public policy arm of the Catholic bishops of New Jersey – and deacon in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, Doylestown, Pa., offered an opening prayer and supportive words.

“The State House is something many people have a reverence for, and sometimes a fear of coming in here. I want you to know that the State House is your house,” Dr. Corwell emphasized. “The legislators debate the issues that are of importance to you in these very rooms … if you want to come here, you are welcome to come on any topic.”

That sentiment was echoed by State Senator Linda R. Greenstein, D-14 Mercer-Middlesex. “It’s good for you to visit the State House because … so many of your issues get decided right here, and so we need lots of input from all of you.”

Innovative Projects

During the visit, students presented the projects that were recognized for going above and beyond. In the Trenton Diocese, Emily Mandelbaum and Svapnil Patel, both seventh-graders in St. James School, Red Bank, demonstrated the building and operation of their solar oven, which harnessed the sun’s heat as an energy source for baking. Slides of students eating s’mores created with the oven were proof of success.

“I’m proud of myself – it felt nice [to present],” said Patel, noting that teacher Susan Signoriello “thought [the project] would be a great way for us to learn about the benefits of solar energy.”

Mandelbaum agreed. “We were learning about solar energy in class, but we decided to go more in-depth with it. A lot of jobs in the future will deal with STEM, so we’ll need it to do everything in life.”

Patel said that not only is STEM essential for today’s education and careers, it’s important because “God created us to do good with his creation, and STEM is helping us to do that.”

JoAnn Giordano, school principal, noted, “It is important for us to introduce students to what is going on in the world today and to be competitive with curriculum. One way we’ve done that is to introduce STEM into our program, especially with the sciences, sometimes cross-curricular. … I think today was a wonderful experience for our students … [they] have a better sense of how technology is used in our everyday life, and how it can help us to solve problems in the future.”

Signoriello, a science teacher in the school, said that keeping textbooks up to date, professional development and frequent collaboration are helping the school to stay ahead of the STEM curve.

“I think that our teachers are well-versed in looking for new ideas, and a lot of us work together,” she said.

The solar oven idea came about a few years prior, when a project was needed for a school STEM night. “The environment is very important to us, and to me as a teacher, so I was looking for something that would raise awareness about saving energy,” Signoriello said. “Taking care of the earth, for Catholics, is important. Their generation is going to need alternative sources of energy … and a STEM program teaches them to think.”

Other student inventions recognized included a video and social media campaign to raise awareness about the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s food pantry needs, by St. John Paul II Regional School, Stratford, Camden Diocese; a recycled hydroponic system for growing plants, by St. Augustine of Canterbury School, Kendall Park, Metuchen Diocese; a food waste study and prevention project, by All Saints Academy, Parsippany-Troy Hills, Paterson Diocese; a “pantry project” that utilized Slick Text accounts and push notifications to prompt for specific food donations needed, by St. John the Apostle School, Clark, Archdiocese of Newark; a solar suitcase that provided portable energy to power light bulbs and computers for developing countries, by Immaculata High School, Somerville, Metuchen Diocese; and a model for flood-proof housing solutions, by Mother Seton Regional High School, also Clark.

‘We Need People Like You’

The busy legislative calendar did not allow for students to hear from representatives during the project presentations – but that didn’t stop Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-16, from peeking in when he saw the STEM sign outside the committee room where students had begun to set up. In spite of being late for a meeting, he was drawn to the solar park bench created by students from DePaul Catholic High School, Wayne, Diocese of Paterson.

Chair of the science committee in the Legislature, as well as head of science education for Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Zwicker talked to the students about his work with fusion energy, trying to create a sustained clean energy source that will never be exhausted.

“We need people like you … to be the next generation of scientists in New Jersey,” he told them. “I just wanted to say thank you … and how thrilled I am that you’re all here.”

Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-13 Monmouth, also stopped by briefly, saying to students, “I really commend all of you for your hard work and dedication, and your teachers … I [went to] Catholic school from kindergarten through law school, so I have an affinity for the education you get in Catholic school. Congratulations on all the work you’ve done so far, and I look forward to seeing more accomplishments from each of you.”

During lunch, Sen. Greenstein asked for input from those in attendance, and school principals raised the long-running issues of funds for school transportation, security, technology and nursing.

“So many of the issues that we deal with … are of importance to the Catholic schools. It started when I got to know many people [from the Network of Catholic School Families] over the years, and they’ve filled me in … being on the budget committee, I feel like I have an opportunity to deal with the issues,” she said.

“I think it absolutely makes a difference for [people] to be in touch with their representatives, either individually or through groups like NJNCSF,” she continued, “because so many of the issues that affect them have to do with state funding. The more you know the people … you want to do everything possible to help – so they should know that the people who lobby for them are doing a great job.”

To view slides and videos of the winning school projects, visit tinyurl.com/2020csw.