Array of Studies Will Prepare Students for Evolving Tech Professions

The first students in the Morris County Technical School Environmental Academy are halfway through their junior year at Jefferson Township High School. Two more cohorts are coming up through the academy, which instructor Dr. Nancy FitzGerald considers a resounding success.

Vocational education had to reinvent itself, FitzGerald pointed out, as the needs of high school students changed from an emphasis on skilled trades to an equal emphasis on college-prep technical fields. Part of that reinvention for Morris County Vocational School was to create academies outside its Denville campus.

According to Sherrie Castelli of the tech school, the idea for an environmental academy in Jefferson came from the community. Because of Lake Hopatcong and all the township’s open space, Jefferson is the ideal location, she stated.

Juniors are weighing their options for next year, said FitzGerald. They can remain at the high school or earn up to 24 college credits through Kean University, County College of Morris, Centenary University, or Ramapo College of New Jersey. Kean’s Environmental School campus is just 10 minutes away, she noted, although that campus does not offer general education courses.

The 43 students in the program, including a number of Jefferson residents, are from Morris, Sussex, and Warren counties. Originally the tech school targeted only Morris County students, as it does for all its academies, and later opened it to a wider audience. Junior Aiden Kelleher from Hope (Belvidere High School) travels the farthest. The academy recruits from the school he attended, Ridge and Valley Charter School, where the curriculum is based on sustainability and the environment. Students from other counties may attend if there is no comparable program in their own area, said FitzGerald.

Freshmen start the program with an introduction to environmental systems. Sophomores have an intro to ecological design in the fall and environmental research design in the spring. Juniors study human ecology, climate change biology, and environmental engineering. Next year, seniors will do research and field work in environmental science and study global issues in environmental sustainability.

The environmental academy lab includes a greenhouse where students learn about hydroponic agriculture. Last year, they grew herbs and sold them, along with spices and teas, at the environmental fair in the high school cafeteria.

Lake Hopatcong serves as a laboratory, including a class on Study Hull, the Lake Hopatcong Foundation’s floating classroom. Academy students receive the results of all water tests done on the boat. They analyze the data, create spreadsheets, and make presentations.

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They also received data from the foundation’s lake-wide cleanup in the fall, categorizing the discarded material by type and location. FitzGerald reported that a huge number of cigarette filters were found in the vicinity of lakeside restaurants. She was not surprised at the number of bottles and cans in Byram Cove, an area well known for partying. “The students suggested an awareness project about the lake,” she said.

This type of project is part of the human ecology section of the curriculum. Students learn about how humans relate to the natural world, for good and ill; the sources of pollution; and the possibilities for remediation.

Individual students have their own interests. Lillianne O’Connell of Mount Olive is working on a project with microplastics in waterways and their effect on fish. “We check their breathing rate and their gills,” she said.

Morgan Brown of Jefferson is interested in environmental health science. She is doing a demonstration project on bioluminescence in single-cell organisms and made a presentation to students and professionals. She is considering a college major in marine biology or possibly emergency services. “We should definitely be concerned about rising temperatures killing all different species in the ocean,” she stated.

Alyssa Sookraj of Wharton is concerned with both sustainability and diet. “The bug girl,” known for her interest in insects and tracing their biomass in the environment, is well-informed about the presence of beneficial and harmful insects.

Alyssa Sookraj with some of the moths she studies. (Photo: Jane Primerano)

Aiden Kelleher built a weather station for the lab. His interest in meteorology extends to recording weather trends and temperatures. He also answered a common question about Jefferson High School: Why does it snow more there than anyplace else in the county? “It’s the way the clouds go up and over Sparta Mountain,” he explained. “It brings more precipitation.” Although he would love to be a storm chaser, he conceded that his mother is not thrilled with that career goal.

Aiden Kelleher with the controls for his weather station. (Photo: Jane Primerano)

Jennifer Wnuk, supervisor of English Language Arts, works with FitzGerald on the curriculum as well as speaking and listening skills for the students. Although the academy is in the STEM universe, presentations can be a large part of the students’ future.

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