LOS LUNAS — School of Dreams Academy teacher Jennifer Nilvo continues to be a STEM trailblazer for students in Valencia County through the introduction of research classes with the goal of revitalizing students’ interest in STEM careers.

“We need them. We need students to fall in love with STEM. They are not going to choose that career path if we are not exposing them to it, especially at these grade levels,” Nilvo said.

Nilvo is a K-12 STEM coordinator and gifted teacher at SODA. She says it’s important to get students more involved in STEM with an interest to continue post graduation because there is a shortage of qualified STEM professionals in the state.

“We need those jobs. A lot of people from Kirtland, Sandia Labs, Los Alamos National Laboratories, for example, are retiring now and we’re finding we don’t have enough people to fill those roles,” Nilvo said. “Or they’re finding that students didn’t realize how much work it took, so their work ethic isn’t all there.”

Nilvo began the research classes this past school year as an elective. She says it’s an optimal way to retain student engagement in STEM because they are hands-on and modeled on how professional scientists conduct research.

“I think hands on is the best approach in STEM-learning without a doubt. I think kids get bored with just reading about science and I think that’s where we lose them,” Nilvo said. “Science is completely different when you’re doing something and able to engineer something. They get more involved, focused and have more of an interest to continue.”

Felina Martinez | News-Bulletin photo
School of Dreams Academy fifth-grader Darryl Karpe displays recognitions he received from the 2023 Central New Mexico Research Challenge.

In Nilvo’s research classes, students form ideas for projects on topics that catch their interest. Nilvo said she encourages them to be purposeful in their designs and consider how it can be unique and relevant to the problems we’re facing today.

“They have to become what I call ‘content experts’ on their particular topic because it’s their research,” she said.

Nilvo said they also learn how to conduct deep-dive analysis on their data to find patterns and think critically about why they think something is happening.

“They have to design their own methodology especially if it’s an experiment that has not been done before. They all have to make different kinds of graphs depending on their experiment to best convey their data,” she said.

Additionally, they all have to write abstracts to learn word limitation and how to be precise and concise in what they’re saying. Nilvo says she has them create abstracts similar to what a PhD student would be expected to make.

Once they have a project they are proud of, the next step is presenting at research competitions which Nilvo says helps them develop important skills in professionalism and communication among others.

SODA is the only middle and high school in Valencia County that participates in research competitions.

Elementary students, as young as fourth-graders, participate in her research classes and present their projects at competitions.

Darryl Karpe, a fifth-grader at SODA, is one such student. In March, he participated in the Central New Mexico Research Challenge which is open to students from the greater Albuquerque area.

His project, The Effects of Soils Types on Fossil Formations, won him $100 dollars and first place in the elementary chemistry category.

“A cast fossil is a plaster-made fossil. My goal was to determine if the quality of a cast fossil is dependent on the soil type in which it was created,” Karpe said. “My method was to use a shell pressed down into a medium that I then took out and poured plaster in. My results were yes. Cast fossil results are dependent on the type of soils they form in.”

Karpe says his research is important because scientists can use it to find more fossils, and museums can benefit because now they have a better way to cast fossils for people to enjoy.

Karpe also won first place in Sandia Grotto Award at the competition for projects on cave related studies. Through this, he was invited to share his research with the Sandia Grotto Society and learn more about the cave research they’re doing.

“I think the younger you can start getting them engaged like this, the more of a difference we’ll see in kids actually pursuing STEM,” Nilvo said.

Eighth-grader Maiya Mershon won first place in the climate change award category and second place in the junior plant science category for her project examining what affects seed depth and water amount have on how well drought tolerant plants grow.

“I’ve always had an interest in plant and environmental science and doing this research this year has helped me decide that I want to pursue it for a career because this was one of my favorite things I’ve ever done,” Mershon said, glowing with excitement.

Eighth-grader Maiya Mershon won first place in the climate change award category and second place in the junior plant science category for her research.

“Our SODA students have brought in approximately $48,000 dollars in value through special awards, internships, and qualifying trips to nationals just in this last spring semester” Nilvo said.

“The kids tell me ‘This is hard!’ ‘This is a lot of work!’ But in the end, they see there is a reward. Look at what they did compared to other peers their age, look at what they accomplished on their own,” Nilvo said. “I’m very proud of them.”

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Felina Martinez was born and raised in Valencia County. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2021. During her time at UNM, she studied interdisciplinary film, digital media and journalism. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, the School of Dreams Academy and the town of Peralta.