The school year is off to a STEM start for some Morris County high schoolers, thanks to a major grant from the New Jersey Department of Education. It’s a program that’s preparing them for their future and well beyond. NJTV News Correspondent Lyndsay Christian sat down with Dr. Anne Mucci, the superintendent of schools for Mountain Lakes.
Christian: So, Dr. Mucci, it’s the first week of school and for some students a new learning opportunity and experience. Mountain Lakes High School opened a state of the art biotechnology lab. Tell me more about this innovative program.
Mucci: We’re so excited to be the county host for this wonderful program. In fact, 25 percent of the U.S. biotechnology industry is right in Morris County, Somerset County and Middlesex County. So, for our district, which has always been fairly progressive and prides itself on building new programs to host this partnership program with the Morris County School of Technology, has been an exceptional opportunity.
Christian: So, the focus is on STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math. How critical is the need for more emphasis on curriculum centered around STEM subjects?
Mucci: We were fortunate because the New Jersey Department of Education identified that biotechnology and biomedical is an area of underemployment here in New Jersey. So, as a result they provided us with a partnership grant with the Morris County School of Technology for $333,000 to build this lab. And, that provided us with opportunities we would never be able to build in our budget and a wonderful partnership with the county vocational school. And, the reason the department did that is because they place a great value on this growing field which currently employs about four percent of private sector workers in New Jersey and is an area of underemployment.
Christian: It’s important that you’re preparing students today, for tomorrow, if you will, for the future. Twenty-two freshman are participating in this program from across Morris County. Was there a lot of excitement among students in terms of the application process and getting them really geared up for this program?
Mucci: There was. We had a wonderful response in the first year and it is a competitive application process. And, just with those 22 students, we represent some of our own students of course in Mountain Lakes and Boonton Township. But, we have students from Kinnelon, from Jefferson, from Parsipanny to Wako, Lincoln Park. So even though we are a small program, we have a broad reach across the county.
Christian: In terms of end goal and how you’re looking at this program, it’s four years long? There are two options that students can participate in: a college option when they’re done or they can stay at Mountain Lakes High School to complete advanced courses. Tell me more about that.
Mucci: So, students have the opportunity to take the traditional Advanced Placement courses. And the exciting piece about this focused academy and the sciences is instead of just taking the one traditional science course each year, students are afforded with the opportunity to take an additional scientific research and experimental design course. So, these are truly the students that are going to become embroiled in challenging scientific problems. They are working on issues ranging from gene therapy, gene cloning, understanding how to construct those experiments. The model program in the country is actually in Monmouth County, New Jersey and when we went there to visit it and look at how we can build a similar program up here in the north, I was so inspired by the students. You really see the work that they’re doing, the excitement, the commitment of their instructors and you recognize that these are truly the students who were going to cure cancer in the future.
Christian: Isn’t that incredible? What is some of the feedback that you’re hearing, I know it’s been three days since they’ve been in this program? What has been some of the feedback from the students?
Mucci: The exciting piece is these students couldn’t wait to learn. So, they came in in August and they did a week-long orientation moving around their family vacations so that they could join Mr. Bocci, our teacher, whose actually an academy student from Bergen County and understands this program so well. And, their responses is that they think the course is incredibly exciting. The opportunity to work with students like themselves who are incredibly dedicated students who are interested in the sciences and who are serious learners. So, they found a peer group. They are going to begin a Technical Students of America Club. They’ve joined our choir. They’ve joined the cross country and soccer team, and it’s like these students have always been a part of our community.
Christian: It’s almost like a once in a lifetime opportunity for these high school students and after this program, they’ll be so well-rounded.
Mucci: Yes. We are thrilled to have them. They are a wonderful complement already to our highly-successful group in Mountain Lakes and it just gives me a great boost when I walk down the hallway and see them hard at work already.
Christian: I know you’re a proud superintendent. Dr. Mucci, thank you so much for joining us.
Mucci: It was an absolute pleasure, thank you for having me.