January 3, 2024

Middle School Launches Major Science Initiative; PHS Scientists Advance

By Donald Gilpin

A learning experience called eSTEAM has been bringing together about 75 Princeton Middle School (PMS) and Princeton High School (PHS) students on Saturday mornings over the past three months to work on science and technology projects.

As an extension of the district’s “Focus Forward” strategic plan, eSTEAM aims to increase STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) engagement for seventh graders in particular, who have been working with helpful mentorship from PHS students. The focus from October to December was on orientation and exploration, according to 6-12 Science Supervisor Joy Barnes-Johnson, and this month the students will be preparing for the Mercer County Science and Engineering Fair (MSEF), which will take place in late March.

Barnes-Johnson noted that the three content areas of the students’ work include an environmental project, a project on the physics of fitness and the science of play, and a third emphasis on challenges in science and technology.

“We wanted to create opportunities for students to explore their interests as scientists and innovators and provide structural programming support for students who want to compete against other students in the county and state,” Barnes-Johnson wrote in an email. “We also imagined the program as a service opportunity for PHS students. All middle school students in eSTEAM work with high school students.”

She added that students who want to compete in the MSEF will be developing their ideas with their high school mentors in the coming weeks. “There has been an overwhelmingly positive response so far, as the middle school students develop their varied interests in research,” Barnes-Johnson noted.

She also reported that PHS junior Sarah Shahab Diaz recently won a grant from the Benjamin Franklin Transatlantic Fellowship to support a composting project with eSTEAM. In other PHS-PMS science collaborations, PHS senior Isabelle Tellez, with support from Send Hunger Packing Princeton (SHUPP), heads up the maintenance of the hydroponics towers, and, along with Diaz, plans to build up the Green Team at PMS under the

guidance of seventh grade teacher Adam Brickey.

In last year’s MSEF competition, Princeton Public Schools students brought home a number of prizes. Most notably, Nicholas Hagedorn, now a senior at PHS, was one of two MSEF Grand Prize winners and went on to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in Texas last May, where he received second place in mathematics, the First Award from the American Mathematical Society, and the First Award from Mu Alpha Theta. Later this month he will be attending the 2024 Taiwan International Science Fair. His project is titled “Strict Inequalities for the N-crossing Number.”

In other PPS science news, PHS has again been selected as a New Jersey finalist in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow National STEM competition. It is one of eight schools selected, each of which will receive a package of $2,500 in technology and classroom supplies. 

PHS research/science teacher Mark Eastburn explained that the PHS research team has been creating interactive robots that can speak various languages of the PPS student population, including Spanish, Haitian Creole, and the Mayan language Mam.

“The purpose of these robots is to encourage continued use of native languages, promote social interaction, and to navigate computer-based platforms to enter data and gain skills in digital literacy,” said Eastburn. “For much of this work, we are using artificial intelligence and natural language processing, though we have come across significant challenges with Mam because no scaffold exists, and this language has extremely complex grammar.”

The research team will submit an activity plan to Samsung by January 11, hoping to advance to the next phase as the state winner. The competition culminates in April with the selection of three national winners, each receiving a $100,000 prize package.