Steve Adubato: Only in NJ

Can Jersey Keep Its Top STEM Students?

STEM Scholar Anna Prilutsky networks with Kevin Campos, an associate VP at Merck, at the STEM Scholars Industry Conference in February at NJIT. Courtesy of The Research & Development Council of New Jersey

Can New Jersey retain its best and brightest? That’s the essential issue addressed by the Governor’s STEM Scholars, a 5-year-old program focused on inspiring students in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math—and helping them recognize the opportunities for talented and innovative STEM graduates in New Jersey.

A public-private partnership among the Office of the Governor, the Department of Education, the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, the Research & Development Council of New Jersey and private industries, the program identifies top STEM talent and introduces those students to the state’s vast STEM economy. The goal is to retain that talent in the state.

“Developing, mentoring and retaining STEM talent” is a top priority for the Research & Development Council, says council executive director Kim Case. “The Governor’s STEM Scholars program, the penultimate point of the STEM pipeline, fulfills this role.”

The first step is to spread the word about the program to eligible New Jersey students—particularly those in underserved communities. “According to the National Skills Coalition, between 2017 and 2027, the number of STEM jobs will grow by 9 percent in New Jersey,” says Rebecca Lubot, the Governor’s STEM Scholars program director for the council. “These jobs,” she continues, “require scholars to start developing specific skill sets. The STEM Scholars program is working to solve this issue by making the thought leaders of tomorrow aware of career opportunities in government, academia and industry.”

Students in grade 10 through doctoral candidates, who have a 3.5 GPA or above, can apply at by June 15 to be considered for the following academic year. Students are required to submit a transcript, and letter of recommendation, share what areas of STEM they are interested in and write a short essay. Applicants are reviewed by academics and private-industry partners with an eye toward leadership potential, diversity in geography and background, and applicant interests.

The scholars selected to participate in the program spend the academic year attending STEM conferences, participating in team-based research projects, and networking with New Jersey STEM professionals, policymakers, educators and researchers. Teachers and industry leaders mentor the undergraduate and graduate students, who in turn mentor the high school students. The research projects are judged at the end of the program; some of the scholars get to brief legislators on their findings at the State House in Trenton.

At this year’s fifth anniversary commencement May 11 at Kean University, diplomas signed by Governor Phil Murphy will be presented to 80 scholars. Senator Cory Booker will deliver a congratulatory video, and the governor has been invited to speak.

NJIT has three scholars in this year’s cohort. “Growing the pipeline that supplies the STEM workforce is essential for economic prosperity,” says NJIT president Joel S. Bloom, Ed.D. “The Governor’s STEM Scholars Program makes an important contribution toward that effort.”

Other industry partners of the program include Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson; the PSEG Foundation; and Eatontown-based Subcom, a global supplier of undersea communications systems.

Some partners are already seeing the benefits of the program. “The Governor’s STEM Scholars students are making a significant impact in their communities and leading change across New Jersey,” says Barb Short, chief diversity officer, foundation president and senior director of corporate citizenship at PSEG.

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State Plants Seeds for First Offshore Wind Farms

Atlantic City’s giant wind turbines generate enough energy to power more than 2,000 homes. The development of offshore wind farms is the next step in New Jersey’s clean-energy plan. Photo: AP Photo/Mel Evans

If you’ve driven into Atlantic City in recent years, you’ve been awed by the five massive turbines of America’s first coastal wind farm. The installation produces approximately 19 million kilowatts of emission-free electricity per year. That’s enough energy to power more than 2,000 homes.

If this much renewable energy can be harnessed on coastal lands, imagine the possibilities if you could take those wind farms offshore, where sea breezes are magnified. That’s what Governor Phil Murphy had in mind last year when he signed an executive order calling on the state to create 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030, with the longer vision of transforming New Jersey into a 100 percent clean energy state by 2050.

To get a better understanding of offshore wind, a team of researchers at Rutgers University conducted a study of factors that would affect wind-based energy production. 

“It’s important that developers take into consideration local effects, like sea breezes, to make sure they can optimize production,” says one of the Rutgers researchers, Dr. Joseph F. Brodie, director, Atmospheric Research, Center for Ocean Observing Leadership, at the university.  

The Rutgers study, published last September, found that not only do sea breezes travel three times farther offshore than onshore, but that the breezes are stronger during upwelling conditions, most common in the summer and fall, which is when water in deeper levels of the ocean rise to the surface. Thanks to the study, developers now know which months to expect the greatest potential wind energy. 

Last September, the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) starting taking bids from developers for the first 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind production. The winning bids will be announced in June. “Construction would be expected to start in 2022-2023, with commercial operations expected to begin in 2024-2026,” says BPU President Joseph L. Fiordaliso. “Projects will be located in one of the four federally designated offshore wind lease areas off the coast of New Jersey.”

The offshore wind farms, which are expected to produce more energy than those onshore, will transmit power to shore by undersea radial transmission cables, connecting onshore at locations to be determined. The planned initial 1,100 megawatts of installed capacity will be able to generate an estimated 4.8 million megawatts of energy annually. This is enough to serve approximately 500,000 New Jersey homes.

The offshore wind farms are expected to bring jobs to New Jersey, while offering cost-effective, renewable energy. The BPU says a two-year research project led by the state Department of Environmental Protection “showed minimal environmental impact would occur” at proposed offshore sites. Additional studies looked at the impact on commercial and recreational fishing. “The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) thoroughly reviewed and considered these potential impacts,” says Fiordaliso. “In addition, developers are required to complete extensive site-evaluation studies and construction and operations plans, which must be reviewed and approved by BOEM in order for any project to proceed.” 

Further, the NJ DEP will monitor any environmental impacts in state waters and onshore. According to Dr. Josh Kohut, associate professor, Center for Ocean Observing Leadership at Rutgers, who worked on the study, “Frequent and open communication between all of the groups involved, and appropriate collaborative research, ensure decision-makers have access to the most relevant information.”

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Big Brothers Big Sisters Is Here to Help

Carlos Lejnieks and
his fellow mentors provide consistency and a solid foundation for growth for their “Littles.”
Courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson & Union Counties

Carlos Lejnieks wants to rewrite history.

Lejnieks, the president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union Counties, knows how far positive influences can go in changing the lives of kids who might otherwise have a future without hope.

“Evidence shows that negative things decrease while positive outcomes increase when we get on the front end of young people’s lives,” says Lejnieks.

That’s the vision behind Big Brothers Big Sisters and its ambitious mentoring program. The nonprofit’s overarching mission is to have adults, called Bigs, volunteer four hours a month—just one hour a week—to mentor a child (or Little) in grades K-12. The Big provides stability and a positive foundation for youth development by engaging in activities with his or her Little. These activities might include a sports event or a visit to a museum or college. “The variable is the activity,” says Lejnieks. “The constant is the Big.”

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union serves just over 1,000 kids. The program started with the support of such prominent philanthropists as Josh Weston, Ray Chambers, the Simon Foundation, Leslie Quick and Rose Cali.

Fundraising remains an important function. The program hosts an annual Bowl for Kids Sake fundraiser in West Orange, with as many as 1,000 Bigs, Littles and friends coming together for bowling. The organization also hosts an annual summer picnic and winter roller-skating party at Branch Brook Park in Newark.

There is plenty of proof of mentoring’s positive impact on at-risk kids. In 2018, 95 percent of the kids serviced by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union graduated from high school. That’s especially impressive, considering 29 percent of the young people in the program have parents who are incarcerated. That’s where stability plays a key role. On average, most of the program’s mentoring matches last more than double the minimum requirement of one year. 

Amid this success, it’s hard to meet the demand for adult mentors, particularly male mentors. Currently, there are nearly 400 boys on the program’s waiting list. And the demand continues to grow, thanks in large part to referrals from the New Jersey Department of Child Protection and Permanency.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union Counties’ new corporate partners include Valley Bank, which, together with the Union County Chosen Freeholders, was essential in helping Big Brothers Big Sisters launch Bigs in Blue, a program aimed at rebuilding trust between youth and law enforcement. “This is an opportunity to build a bridge between two sets of our community,” says Lejnieks. “The cop understands that this is a child, the child understands that the cop is a human being.  If you humanize the other, it helps in a crime-prevention strategy.”

The organization plans to build new mentoring relationships by working with even more corporations. Lejnieks cites a recent Gallup study that underscores the importance of mentoring for the next generation of employers. The study showed that 70 percent of employees are disengaged in their employment, which leads to retention issues. A connection to the community “is what the next crop of employees will need to be happy, engaged and productive,” says Lejnieks. “If we do our job right, we can help the corporate sector in their business imperatives, while also creating positive impact in the lives of our children. We often hear that becoming a Big will not feel like just a program.  This will become a part of your life.”

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Camden Revisited: A New Approach to Policing

Camden police chief
J. Scott Thomson says
investing in education
is essential to fighting
crime. “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” he
Photo by Matthew Wright

In May 2013, Camden disbanded its 141-year-old municipal police department and replaced it with a force run by the county. The force, it was declared, would be more visible and would better connect with the community. The hope was that this radical move would help lower crime and violence in the beleaguered city.

Camden’s situation was dire. The prior year, the city had a record-high murder rate and was listed among the five most crime-plagued cities in the country. Something had to change.

Fast-forward almost six years. Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson says the situation is improving. “Based on the metrics for the last five years,” says Thomson, “every crime category has experienced a double-digit reduction, with precipitous drops in homicides, violent crime and overall crime.” Total crime, adds Thomson, is at a 50-year low. “In fact, we have seen a 69 percent decline in murders and a 44 percent drop in [nonviolent] crime since the county police department’s formation.”

Thomson is pleased with community support for centralized policing. “We have been building trust and approach challenges with a Hippocratic-oath mentality of ‘first, do no harm.’”

The approach, says Thomson, represents “a seismic shift in the culture and philosophy that is employed by every officer in the agency.” It means working directly with residents and with children in their schools. It means hosting barbecues in the parks and checking on the elderly.

Community members applaud the change. “Our parks had become havens for criminal activity,” says North Camden native Bryan Morton, a neighborhood organizer. In 2011, Morton and his wife, Felisha, resurrected the North Camden Little League in hope it would be a positive influence on the neighborhood and its kids. “The program started with 110 kids and now has more than 650 players,” says Morton. “The Little League was a social response to what at the time was a criminal-justice and health crisis in our community. We felt that reclaiming our parks would help increase public safety as well as health outcomes in our community.”

Morton describes the members of the new police force as partners in the initiative. They help at practices and games and discourage the use of parks for illicit activities. “In a way,” says Morton, “the police created a beachhead, and the community was able to come out and reclaim those spaces.”

What’s next for Camden policing? Thomson says his department will continue to find better ways to approach Camden’s challenges by bringing more non-police partners to the table. Further, he says, “the investments of working with youth and the schools over the past several years are starting to produce peace dividends. Nothing stops a bullet like a job, so the more we can support and enhance education, the greater potential there is for employment opportunities.”

This is critical in Camden, where 30 percent of the population is under the age of 18. Additionally, 68 percent of the households in the city are single-parent households, which is why Thomson’s force puts so much emphasis on youth.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” says Thomson. “It wasn’t until we fundamentally changed our approach to policing that we started to see meaningful progress. We will never return to the days of solely using traditional police metrics of tickets issued and arrests made to gauge success—not on my watch.”

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