The university faculty acts as a mentor for high school STEM students

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

June 21, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Mia Bierowski at the Norwalk Community College Science Fair.

As Andie Napolitano researched climate change and learned more about human impact on the planet, she began to incorporate more sustainable habits into her everyday life. It wasn’t always easy, she says, and she believed positive feedback and encouragement from others would help her stay motivated while developing more sustainable habits.

As 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 rewards 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 understanding the academic and professional background of Dr. After researching Mekni, including his software development experience, she asked him to act as her mentor as she began work on her app.

“I was interested in working with Dr. Mekni interested,” 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 showcased her app at the CT-STEM show, her project took second place in the Behavioral Research Proposals category, qualifying her to showcase her app at a regional event.

“I was surprised and excited when I found out I’d won second place,” said Napolitano. “It felt like all my hard work this year had paid off and it inspired me to keep working and making progress. The judges at the fair gave me great feedback, which showed me that one day my work can really make a difference.”

“We want Connecticut high school teachers to know that our faculty at the University of New Haven is a valuable asset that they can leverage… Together we can help our students.”Mehdi Mekni, Ph.D.

In addition to his guidance on the technical aspects of the project, Dr. Mekni presented her application, helping her develop an entrepreneurial mindset and encouraging her to prioritize value over complexity of technical features.

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

“How much our students have achieved”

Napolitano was one of several Amity High School students to complete their CT-STEM Fair projects under the direction of the University of New Haven faculty. Napolitano’s fellow student Mia Bierowski, a second-year student, also developed a concept for a mobile app. Inspired by shows like Criminal Minds, she became interested in the science of crime scenes and collecting evidence. This led her to discover another field: entomology.

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

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

“I was involved in a collaboration with Dr. O’Brien because of his experience and passion in this field,” she continued. “After visiting his lab and seeing the amazing research his students did, I was keen to explore the field further.”

Andie Napolitano
Andie Napolitano with her poster.
“The real game changers of the future”

Bierowski plans to work on the app over the coming year and hopes it will help differentiate and identify forensically relevant blowfly species.

“Mia is an amazing young woman who shows a passion for both her project and the science behind it,” said Dr. O’Brien, who serves as director of the university’s Center for Forensic Wildlife Research. “Once their project is complete, it could be used by forensic entomologists to aid them in their casework. I hope that Mia will continue to pursue her passion for science. Young people like Mia will be the real game changers in the future.”

“We are delighted that our students had the opportunity to work with mentors from the University of New Haven,” said Catherine Piscitelli, director of the science studies program and educator at Amity High School. “The university faculty members have been so generous with their time and guidance for our Amity students. It is impressive to see how much our students have achieved in such a short time.”

‘Let’s work together’

dr Mekni is also excited about the meaningful learning opportunities the faculty has created for the high school students – and he hopes this type of mentoring will continue and develop. He hopes that faculty – including several prospective computer science and cybersecurity professors – will continue to share their expertise through such important outlets so that the university can provide important leadership.

“We want Connecticut high school teachers to know that our faculty at the University of New Haven is a valuable asset that they can use,” he explains. “We can help our students together. Your students could become our students in a few years. If students can expand their skills before leaving high school, they will excel when they come to our institution. It creates an early path to excellence.”

dr Mekni points out that this collaboration creates important networking opportunities while fostering growth and innovation through the development of 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 contribute our expertise and work together as a group to improve our society. We enable multidisciplinary solutions by investing time, volunteering to help students collaborate, and by strengthening our collaborations and relationships.”

“Grow enormously as a student and researcher”

These opportunities have already stimulated innovation and collaboration among students like Napolitano. She plans to work on her app throughout her high school years and possibly beyond, and hopes it will help users help the environment. She says her time working on the app with Dr. Mekni’s guidance was invaluable.

“My experience this year has helped me grow tremendously as a student and as a researcher,” she said. “While I’ve faced many failures throughout the year, through hard work and dedication I’ve finally achieved success. In doing so, I learned that it takes perseverance and immense commitment to be successful as a student and as a researcher.”

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