In John F. Kennedy High School’s Advanced Science Research program, accolades and recognition for students’ hard work typically come during their senior year.
But for a team of five sophomores, the honors started early: On March 3, they took part and placed first in presentation in the Medical Marvels competition — a collaborative science program sponsored by Northwell Health that encourages ninth- and 10th-grade students to think outside the box, and come up with smart solutions to common problems.
ASR teacher Barbi Frank told the Herald last week that this was the first time Kennedy students had taken part in the competition. When she learned about it in early December, she messaged the program’s sophomores, asking if anyone wanted to form a team. Ellie Gelman, Jack Levitt, Mark Prainito, Jayden Simon and Mason Tso, all 15, quickly volunteered.
The team was tasked with a “prompt,” provided by Northwell, that they knew before they agreed to compete: They were the collective “superintendent” of a large school district, who had just met with the New York State Department of Energy (a fictitious agency).
“We were told that we can do more to be more sustainable,” Levitt explained. “So we had to come up with a proposition to implement policies that could make our district eco-friendly.”
The 10th-graders had decided to join ASR for a variety of reasons, including to challenge themselves, and to join a community of students that resembles a family. When the opportunity to take part in Medical Marvels presented itself, they wanted to get a taste of research, and working under pressure, they said.
“I think a reason we all wanted to do it is because it was just something different,” Tso said. “We just wanted the experience of doing something new.”
Some of the boys on the team are interested in focusing their personal research projects on climate change, but Gelman added that the concept of the task didn’t relate to her line of study, which focuses on decision making.
“My project has nothing to do with climate change,” she said. “But it’s good to practice presenting.”
“That’s one of the nicest things, is that there are additional skills that come out of things like this,” Frank said of Medical Marvels. “For instance, they approached different people at the competition to talk to. They went out of their comfort zones.”
In total, 120 students from 19 Long Island and Manhattan schools took part in the research competition. A question that many had — including the Kennedy student — was how sustainability and climate change relate to medicine.
Simon said that the connection is actually something that grew out of the coronavirus pandemic. Teresa Amato, the competition’s keynote speaker and a head doctor at Northwell, explained it to the participating students.
“Basically, during Covid, there was a lack of oxygen,” Simon said, referring to bottled oxygen tanks. “And it was the first time that’s ever happened in (Amato’s) career. She was like, ‘How do we preserve the oxygen?’”
So the medical community came up with programs that focused on resource management. One small example was the concept of re-wearing facial coverings to reduce pollution and, again, preserve the supply.
Those concepts are what led to the students’ task, because it focused on sustainability. To help their imaginary school district become eco-friendly, the team came up with a simple solution: purchasing Rocketbooks.
Rocketbooks are reusable smart notebooks. They look like a typical notepad, with either lined or gridded pages, that are written on with a special pen. Users can upload their notes by scanning them into an app, or taking a photo of the page. When they’re done using the book for a class, the notes wash away with water. A Rocketbook is essentially a book that never runs out of pages, and preserves all past notes online.
Prainito, who said he’s used one for several months, introduced the device to the team. “It’s kind of the major idea that set us apart from other people — it’s what made us different from other projects,” he said. “It’s a cheaper alternative to a Chromebook, because it allows you to reuse it, and save notes to the web with a lower price point. And it’s also just lighter and easier to carry.”
A Chromebook, Google’s version of a laptop, costs around $350. Rocketbooks can be purchased for as little as $20 apiece.
For many weeks during and after school, team members worked on perfecting their ideas and research. In the end, they submitted an eight-page paper, and gave a three-minute presentation to a panel of judges and fellow students, and were prepared to answer any questions about the project.
The team worked so well together, Frank said, because they really cared about performing well, and they walked away from the experience feeling more prepared for future competitions.
“They set high expectations for themselves and achieved together — which was really cool,” she said. “Sometimes you set high expectations, and it comes easy. They worked hard for it, and they had fun.”
An earlier verison of this story erroneously stated that Kennedy's team won the Medical Marvels competion overall. This honor went to John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview.