Another Summer of STEM for Bergen Students

Bergen Community College students prepping a high-altitude balloon for flight before the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

PARAMUS, N.J. – This summer, Bergen Community College STEM students launched a high-altitude balloon to capture images of the solar eclipse, recorded geologic activity around the globe with a homemade seismometer and placed first in a national hackathon competition. Just an ordinary summer.

The balloon project – a follow-up to last summer’s launch that delivered images of the Earth at 96,000 feet – featured a team of two dozen students, faculty and staff collaborating to secure atmospheric photos and video of the Aug. 21 solar eclipse that captivated the United States.

Using plans and research conducted by the 2016 balloon team, this year’s group built their payload box from scratch, designing parts through CAD software, then exporting their designs to a 3-D printer. The team then outfitted the box with a microprocessor, GPS equipment and six cameras to record the event and prepared to attach the payload to a 3,000-gram balloon that would soar into the atmosphere.

The team worked with Professor Paul Griffo, Ph.D., to use location prediction software to determine the optimal spot for the launch based on their balloon and payload. Located within the so-called “path of totality” – complete coverage of the sun during the eclipse – Jefferson City, Missouri, consistently topped the charts. The professor also helped secure a spot to launch, making contact with Jefferson City representatives of international industrial technology leader ABB, which not only provided the team with logistics support, but tents, meals and water.

After traveling to Jefferson City, the team launched the balloon from a field on ABB’s campus, watching the eclipse from the ground as their payload soared into the atmosphere. Ultimately, a malfunction – most likely heat exposure – knocked out the payload’s microprocessor and five of the six cameras, limiting the data and images returned once the balloon popped and crashed back to land. The team will now try to reconstruct the event to pinpoint the cause of the breakdown.

Project leader Grecia Manrique, of Ridgefield, had no regrets.

“For those two and a half minutes, as our balloon was up in the air and we were staring at the solar eclipse, we were just quiet, observing such a natural event,” she said.  “Everyone forgot about all of their problems. For one moment, everyone just watched this beautiful event.”

Professor Griffo agreed that the event, and the students’ work, overshadowed any hiccups.

“It’s a privilege to work with students who are so focused and so dedicated to getting a job done and learning more,” he said. “It’s exciting to watch.”

Meanwhile, as the eclipse dazzled the skies, activity underground also piqued the interest of Bergen STEM students. This summer, a seismometer constructed by Bergen graduates Karina Palaric and Tamar Tokman, continued to record earthquakes that rocked areas as distant as Mexico. Palaric, of Garfield, who now attends NJIT, and Tokman, of Emerson, who now attends Fairleigh Dickinson University, worked on the project for approximately one year, using plans and blueprints for AS-1 vertical seismometers found online along with Professor Fred Marton, Ph.D. Tokman said the project helped elevate her confidence.

“It’s good that you’re into the sciences, but it also makes you feel good about yourself,” she said.

Finally, student Jonny Lazarte won first prize in the “Master the Mainframe Hackathon” at the August SHARE conference in Providence, Rhode Island. SHARE, an independent volunteer-run information technology association, sponsored the event as part of their annual “career day” activities. During the hackathon, students competed with each other while working with IBM and Rocket Software experts to learn new skills. Lazarte, of Garfield, also served as a project leader on the eclipse balloon team.

Focus on STEM continues at Bergen as the federal government estimates U.S. employers will add nine million STEM jobs by 2022.  Projects at Bergen have included converting a softball field house into a workshop and conducting experimental testing with two wind turbines and a solar panel system. Additionally, the Federal Aviation Administration also granted Bergen clearance to operate unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) on campus, making it one of only three community colleges to receive such an exemption from the federal government.

Based in Paramus, Bergen Community College (, a public two-year coeducational college celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017-18, enrolls 15,000 students at locations in Paramus, the Philip Ciarco Jr. Learning Center in Hackensack and Bergen Community College at the Meadowlands in Lyndhurst. The College offers associate degree, certificate and continuing education programs in a variety of fields. More students graduate from Bergen than any other community college in the state.

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