The Charger Blog

University Faculty Serve as Mentors to High School STEM Students

A group of local high school students recently interacted with University of New Haven faculty members as they worked on projects they presented at the CT-STEM Fair. The faculty look forward to continuing to create new multidisciplinary opportunities for collaboration, networking, and innovation through mentorship.

June 21, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Mia Bierowski
Mia Bierowski at the Norwalk Community College Science Fair.

When Andie Napolitano was researching climate change and learning about the impact humans have had on the planet, she began trying to implement more sustainable habits into her daily routine. It wasn’t always easy, she says, and she believed that positive feedback and encouragement from others would help her stay motivated as she developed more sustainable habits.

A sophomore at Amity Regional High School, Napolitano was inspired to create an app that would help others develop greener habits by using a point-reward system. The social media-like app would also create an online community focused on helping users minimize their impact on climate change.

Last fall, Napolitano reached out to Mehdi Mekni, Ph.D., an associate professor of computer science and cybersecurity at the University of New Haven. After researching Dr. Mekni’s academic and professional background, including his software development experience, she asked him to serve as her mentor as she began work on her app.

“I was interested in working with Dr. Mekni because of his knowledge of computer science,” she said. “I have little experience with coding and computer applications, and Dr. Mekni taught me about application development and coding.”

‘She showed perseverance’

Napolitano and Dr. Mekni met several times after that, and she showed him her progress and asked him questions. When she presented her app at the CT-STEM Fair, her project captured second place in the research proposals behavioral category, qualifying her to present her app at a regional event.

“I was surprised and excited when I learned I won second place,” said Napolitano. “It felt like all of my hard work from this year paid off, and it inspired me to keep working and progressing. The judges at the fair gave me great feedback, which showed me that my work could really make a difference someday.”

"We want teachers in Connecticut high schools to know that our faculty at the University of New Haven are valuable assets they can use...We can collectively help our students."Mehdi Mekni, Ph.D.

In addition to offering his guidance regarding the technical aspects of the project, Dr. Mekni coached her on presenting her application, helped her develop an entrepreneurial mindset, and encouraged her to prioritize value over the complexity of technical features.

“Andie was so easy to work with,” said Dr. Mekni. “She’s not afraid to learn something new, and she showed perseverance. She’s driven by value. She had in mind what she wanted to offer the user, and she did it.”

'How much our students have accomplished’

Napolitano was one of several Amity High School students who completed their CT-STEM Fair projects under the mentorship of University of New Haven faculty. Napolitano’s classmate Mia Bierowski, a sophomore, also developed a concept for a mobile app. Inspired by shows such as Criminal Minds, she became interested in the science of crime scenes and gathering evidence. This led her to discover another field: entomology.

Bierowski was interested in creating an app that would make the identification of blowflies – which can be critical to investigating a crime scene – more efficient and accurate. She worked with R. Christopher O'Brien, Ph.D., an associate professor of forensic science whose research interests include forensic animal necrophagy and wildlife forensics. As part of her research, Bierowski trapped and identified flies, developing the basis for the content of the app.

“In the past year, Dr. O’Brien has taught me all about entomology and wildlife research,” said Bierowski, who also presented her project at the CT-STEM Fair, as well as at the Norwalk Community College Science Fair. “I learned how to trap flies in my own backyard and to identify those flies by observing their morphology.

“I was interested in working with Dr. O’Brien because of his experience in the field as well as his passion for it,” she continued. “After visiting his lab and seeing the amazing research being done by his students, I was extremely interested in exploring the field further.”

Andie Napolitano
Andie Napolitano with her poster.
‘The real game changers in the future’

Planning to work on the app this coming year, Bierowski hopes it will aid in the differentiation and identification of forensically relevant blowfly species.

“Mia is an amazing young woman who demonstrates a passion for both her project and the underlying science,” said Dr. O’Brien, who serves as director of the University’s Center for Wildlife Forensic Research. “Once her project is completed, it could be used by forensic entomologists to assist them in their casework. It is my hope that Mia will continue to pursue her passion for science. Young people like Mia are going to be the real game changers in the future.”

"We are so pleased that our students have been able to work with mentors from the University of New Haven,” said Catherine Piscitelli, Science Research Program director and instructor at Amity High School. “The faculty members from the University have been so generous with their time and guidance of our Amity students. It's impressive to see how much our students have accomplished in such a short time.”

‘Let’s work together’

Dr. Mekni is also excited about the meaningful learning opportunities faculty have created for the high school students – and he hopes this type of mentorship will continue and evolve. He hopes faculty – including several incoming computer science and cybersecurity professors – will continue to share their expertise though such important outreach opportunities, enabling the University to serve in an important stewardship role.

"We want teachers in Connecticut high schools to know that our faculty at the University of New Haven are valuable assets they can use,” he explains. “We can collectively help our students. Their students might become our students in a few years. If students can build their skills before they leave their high school, they’re going to be excellent when they come to our institution. It creates an early excellence pathway.”

Dr. Mekni points out that this collaboration creates important networking opportunities while fostering growth and innovation by developing young talent.

Dr. Mekni
Mehdi Mekni, Ph.D.

“This creates important multidisciplinary opportunities,” he said. “We have problems to solve, and we have technology. Let’s work together. We can all bring our expertise, and we can work together as a group to make our society better. We enable multidisciplinary solutions by investing time, by volunteering in order to help students collaborate, and by strengthening our collaborations and relationships.”

‘Grow tremendously as a student and researcher’

These opportunities have already inspired innovation and collaboration in students such as Napolitano. Planning to continue working on her app throughout her time in high school and, possibly, beyond, she hopes it will enable users to help the environment. She says her time working on the app with Dr. Mekni’s guidance has been invaluable.

“My experience this year has helped me grow tremendously as a student and as a researcher,” she said. “While I experienced many failures throughout the year, through hard work and dedication, I achieved success in the end. Through this, I learned it takes perseverance and immense effort to be successful as a student and as a researcher.”