Middle Schoolers Passionate about Science

By Alice Roche Cody

Matthew Dicks '25 is a SpaceX and NASA junkie who eagerly watches all rocket launches and landings. Favorite blast offs include Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Crew Dragon. Two years ago, he attended space camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Alabama. So, when his eighth-grade science teacher, Jennifer Schuchman, announced a three-month-long independent research project, Matthew instantly knew his topic. Rocket propulsion proved a no-brainer for this space aficionado because it's one of the only rocket topics he had yet to explore on his own.

First, Matthew conducted his research and then talked with Dr. Michael McDonald, a rocket scientist who works for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. "He is an expert in rocket propulsion and our interview was very helpful because he has worked on rocket engines since he earned his doctorate ten years ago," said Matthew. "I was fascinated hearing about how he got into the aerospace industry, which included an internship at Blue Origin very early in the company's history."

Matthew found their conversation easy and extremely enlightening: "His expertise is on Hall Thrusters, which are rocket engines that are used when the rocket is already in space, versus when the rocket is lifting off from the launch pad. He gave me a lot of information about Hall Thrusters, including that they are a different type of rocket propulsion that uses inert gases to produce thrust, which is different from the standard liquid fueled engine which uses an oxidizer and a fuel. These are already being used in the SpaceX Starlink internet satellites. When humans try to get to Mars, this is the type of technology that could be used to make it possible."

Matthew wasn't the only student excited by what he learned. By the project's end, Ms. Schuchman's class brimmed with budding experts on topics ranging from stem cells to orthopedics. All students completed research, interviewed a specialist in the field, and shared findings in a class presentation.

"My students interviewed doctors and nurses from Morristown Medical Center, scientists from NASA, and professors from Cornell and Rutgers," said Ms. Schuchman. "Students chose topics that particularly interested them, such as bridge design or Northern Lights." The assignment, a first for her classes, provided pupils a close examination of a topic of interest and taught them how to correspond and converse with their chosen experts.

"In order to get jobs and internships, my students will have to be persistent via email – it's not easy getting a volunteer position as a young teenager," she said. "They had to compose professional emails, carry out an educated discussion with their chosen expert, and send a thank you. These are real-world skills they will need as they start high school." 

Another space lover, Darya Tahmasebi '25, narrowed her topic to telescopes and gathered more than 20 notecards for her research. "I interviewed a specialist from NASA, and I was SUPER excited about that and thrilled," she said. "I interviewed him via Zoom, and it went great. He knew a lot about telescopes, space science, astrology, and the planets. I typed every single word he said, which was a lot, but was worth it and made my presentation ten times better! I learned a lot about how different telescopes will do different things and how experts have to measure and compare telescopes to see the accuracy." Although she found the various deadlines somewhat stressful, Darya enjoyed the project and sharing her Google Slide presentation with her classmates.

For a group project that explored forensics, Caroline Simonelli '25, Elsa Racine '25, and Abby Novinski '25 interviewed Dr. Mark Desire, the chief medical examiner in New York City. "Communicating with an expert in the topic was something each of us thought to be surreal," said Caroline. "We think that it was an amazing opportunity that we realize many other people our age never could have experienced." The trio enjoyed the collaborative project. "We all wanted to learn more within this field," said Elsa. "We also think that learning about forensics is something fun, and other people would enjoy it too. Also, the knowledge we gained can be applied to other situations, like crime shows and news." Abby's aim through their group slideshow was to inspire others. "We hope our research will motivate our classmates to start research of their own within this field," she said.

For Matthew Dicks, his in-depth dive into rocket propulsion is only the beginning. His project proved a win-win that will set him up for his future. "I enjoyed this project because I researched a topic that I am passionate about," he said. "I love being able to learn new things. I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity to talk to someone who does what I would love to do after college!"

Highlights of Ms. Schuchman's eighth grade science independent research projects:  

  • Josephine Adebambo: postpartum depression
  • Sanjay De Silva: Buidling materials and design
  • Matt Fortunato: Concussions and sports injuries
  • Ema Hercules: How social media affects the brain in teenagers
  • Jacqueline Herrera-Perez: Exoplanets and their habitability
  • Marco Liberti: Effects of stress on brain and behavior
  • Elsa Racine: Forensic science
  • Arjun Rao: Stem Cell Research
  • Nick Rocca: Nuclear Fission/Fusion
  • Nevan Sameth: Breast cancer
  • Teagan Sameth: Lantern Flies
  • Michael Simonelli: Effects of video games on teenagers
  • Mary Young: Dyslexia
  • Addy Angell: Factors affected human longevity
  • Alex Chyzowych: Common Sport Injuries
  • Emily Dicks: History of Surgery and Sterile Techniques
  • Matthew Dicks: Rocket Engines
  • Gianna Frangello: Schizophrenia
  • Sophie Elber: Depression
  • Noah Most: Black Holes
  • Addison Rodriguez: Bias and racism
  • Caroline Simonelli: Forensic Science
  • Ben Spinowitz: Nuclear Fusion
  • Darya Tahmasebi: Telescopes
  • Danny Vasquez: Rocket Engines
  • Kendall Bell: Neurosurgery
  • Angelina Bonaventura: Orthopedic Surgery, taught her fellow students how to suture in her final presentation.
  • Brady Domsic: Effect of fertilizer on farming/planting
  • Katie Lutz: Bioluminescence
  • Giacomo Messina: How music affects the brain
  • Abby Novinski: Forensic Science
  • Harry Pambianchi: Gravity
  • Ava Roslund: Diabetes
  • Ellie Roslund: Northern Lights
  • Kevin Pikiell: Factors affecting extinction of animals
  • Duncan Cheng: Bridge design
  • Bianca Cooper: Cardiology
  • Sofia Criscola: Design of buildings
  • Austin Fluhr: Radiology, interviewed Radiologist Jennifer Kertesz, M.D.
  • Lucy Halstead: Social Cognition
  • Juliana Holmes: Hodgkin's Lymphoma
  • Kate Horton: Differences in the male and female brain
  • Christopher Kolb: Explosives
  • Campbell Macak: Cystic fibrosis
  • David Pressley: Airplane design
  • Libby Scott: Asthma
  • Max Voigt: Science of Ski Design

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