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STEM Program Reaches New Heights with High Altitude Balloon

By Adelajda Turku | Contributing Writer

Bergen Community College is the first community college in the United States to have a STEM Center. Rumors say the new STEM room on the third floor of the Pitkin Education Center at the main campus of BCC will open in April.

Although this can be sad news for the graduating STEM students who will be leaving BCC, it is quite exciting for current students. In fact, they will have the personal area for development and projects like the Electrical Motorcycle, the Electroencephalogram (EEG), the High-Altitude Balloon, the Robotics, Enable, Iris and Ethical Hacking.

Ian Reeksman is a sophomore Engineering Science student at BCC and has lead the High-Altitude Balloon Project of the STEM Student Union for almost a year.  When his mentor, professor Griffo, proposed the team to present the project at the American Geophysical Union Conference (AGU) in Washington D.C., he took the promising opportunity.

This Physics Project was started in 2004 by professor Griffo, and the team of STEM Student Union members launched the first balloon in August of 2015 at Lackawanna State Park in Pennsylvania, using a microprocessor to record data during the flight.

The second flight reached the altitude of 96,000 feet above the sea level and student members recorded data on air temperature and atmospheric pressure during the flight, carrying cameras to record the ascending and descending balloon.

The most memorable launch was that of August 2017 in Jefferson City, Missouri. Not only because of the help offered from 25 BCC faculty and STEM Student Union members, but also because of the eclipse captured by the camera during the fight.

In the summer internship of 2018, the group decided to fly a balloon to capture meteor dust at altitudes greater than 60,000 feet above the sea level.

Professor Griffo explains, “The students used a solid printer to build a mechanism that would open and close a mechanical shutter that covered a six-inch petri dish. A GPS unit would sense the altitude and open and close the shutter at the appropriate altitudes.”

Unfortunately, the flight did not happen because the summer ended before testing could be performed, but since then the students continued to work on the project and are hopeful to fly it again around the graduation in May.

However, the summer experience internship allowed the group of students to submit the abstract for the AGU Conference. Together with Zachary Citti and Joshua Remer, Ian Reeksman participated in the Conference and he states it was “The opportunity to showcase our project to science enthusiasts from around the world. Judges walked around scoring posters and presenters. Although we did not win an award for our work, we did receive a score of 41/45 from judges.”

This incredible achievement made students from BCC stand out from the highly competitive environment of the AGU Conference, where 28,000 scientists were looking for poster presentations to evaluate.

Citti states that “the experience gave me the chance to look into other fields of science and it also gave me a taste of what it is like to present the progress of the project.”

On the other hand, the personal progress of the students has been witnessed by professor Griffo, who states that Reeksman, Citti and Remer had grown not only as students, but also as young professionals.

He articulates that “This experience has taught them to use their skills to present all of the important parameters of the project while drawing the listeners into their experience. One of the poster judges was very impressed with their knowledge and expertise. They were excellent representatives of BCC at the AGU Conference and we should all be proud of them and their work.”

Not only that, but these STEM Students have been recently inducted into the STEM Student Scholar Program (3SP)– the Honors Society for STEM degree students. This selection is based on outstanding academic performance, completion of the summer internship, attendance to mini courses and the serving as mentors for students taking science remedial courses.

According to the statistics, 3SP Scholars of the current academic year (2018-2019) are considered the top two percent of students pursuing a STEM degree at BCC.

The merit of BCC students’ success of the AGU Conference in December 2018 is also due to Dr. Fred Marton, Associate Professor of Geology and Physicist at BCC,  and faculty mentor for the seismometer team.

Affiliated with the organization since Graduate School, he “knew the AGU Conference would be the best place to present the project and, going to this major meeting and presenting as a community college student, is a fantastic experience for a young scientist.”

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