Former, current Harrison Township district kids compete in statewide competition

The girls from Christine Rivera’s third grade class were also surprised with good news by their former teacher.

Mallory Engle, Jules Roes and Jillian McGroarty embrace each other after finding out they’re advancing to the final portion of the STEAM Tank competition on Oct. 30 (Krystal Nurse/The Sun).

By KRYSTAL NURSE

The Sun

Five students from the Harrison Township School District competed in the statewide STEAM Tank (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) competition in Atlantic City on Oct. 23 and 24 and presented prototypes that would help make someone else’s life easier.

Christine Rivera’s group of former third graders — Jules Roes, Mallory Engle and Jillian McGroarty — presented an anti-tip chair, and Laura Richardson’s pair of former sixth graders from a peer support group for students with special needs — Madelena DiFabio and Gabrielle Calandra, who are now at Clearview — presented an app that helps someone communicate with others.

All schools in the state were invited to enter by the New Jersey School Boards Association and the U.S. Army. Four hundred schools submitted their inventions, 90 were selected to compete in the regionals and three were selected to move on to the finals. Previously, several HTSD teams were among 160 to compete at the regional competition in Blackwood in March, with the two teams advancing.

Third grade teacher Christine “Chrissy” Rivera is pictured with (left to right) Jillian McGroarty, Mallory Engle and Jules Roes with the anti-tip chair in action on Oct. 30 (Krystal Nurse/The Sun).

“[The invention] had to be something that was brand new or it could’ve been something that was already used, and then make it better,” said Rivera. “So, the group that moved forward and created a chair that didn’t move if a child rocked backwards in it.”

“We created the chair because a lot of people have head injuries, and there was a student in our class, last year, who always leaned back in their chair and we felt like he almost got hurt,” said fourth grader Jillian McGroarty.

The chair the girls created had pegs and legs (depending on the prototype) that automatically extended backward whenever a small child would tip backward in it to prevent the child from falling and incurring an injury.

Jamie Roes, Jules’ mother, added it was remarkable to see the girls created something that would positively affect someone else’s life, opposed to their own.

“It shows their compassion and their desire to be helpers and leaders,” said Roes.

Gabrielle Calandra and Madelena DiFabio after their presentation on Oct. 24 (Laura Richardson/Special to The Sun).

“They are amazingly kind, compassionate and smart girls who are wise beyond their years,” said Richardson in an email interview of her team.

Richardson’s team created an app called “Menu @ Your Fingertips” that allows for people who cannot speak to order from a restaurant menu with a smartphone application, which started in the winter of 2018.

“They worked with subject matter experts (special ed teacher, speech language pathologist, local restaurant owner and app designer) to conduct research about people with disabilities, how they communicate, how people with disabilities or communication challenges order at a restaurant, how to program an app, etc,” said Richardson.

Rivera’s group was selected as one of the top three to advance to the final stages of the competition, which will be revealed at the NJEA (statewide teachers’ union) Convention on Nov. 8.

DiFabio and Calandra, according to Richardson, are receiving an award that same day from the state’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects and are being invited to the Nov. 27 Kids Design Day at the N.J. Institute of Technology College of Architecture and Design to present their idea to attendees and stakeholders.

From the STEAM Tank Finals on Oct. 24, pictured is (left to right) Madelena DiFabio, Laura Richardson and Gabrielle Calandra (Laura Richardson/Special to The Sun).

“They gave recess last school year, stayed after school many afternoons, worked through the summer, and continued working after school and on the weekends,” said Richardson. “We need more compassionate and caring people in this world. I am so proud to have been their coach through this process.”

In the regional competition, students faced off against each other in their respective groupings (kindergarten through sixth, seventh through eighth, and high school).

For the parents, they said that not only was the experience rewarding for the girls, but also for them.

“No matter where you are in your career or life, you’re going to need to have that ability to get in front of people and talk to people, whether it will be a straight-up pitch like what they had to do, or a full-on conference call,” said Brian McGroarty, Jillian’s father. “If you don’t have that ability, you’re going to stunt your growth in anything you do.”

The parents and Rivera offered some help and guidance to the girls, but left most of the project up to them to do.

“I guided them with the guidelines and they did the rest at home,” said Rivera.

“There was a bit of ‘guys you need to be thinking of X, Y and Z’ and we would pull them together and they would hash it out,” said Roes. “Was there any guidance? Sure, they’re 9. But as far as the actual design, that was them.”

The girls said they had a few nerves when presenting due to some unforeseen hiccups such as a team dropping out and losing a few scripts, but they were able to overcome it and present the project to the judges within the allotted time.

The girls are pictured demoing the effectiveness of the anti-tip chair on Oct. 30 (Krystal Nurse/The Sun).

“I think it’s a big confidence builder for all of them to not only get up and do that, it’s tough to do for some adults, but to do it at such a young age and the judges loved them,” said David Engle, Mallory’s father.

“Both girls were somewhat nervous, but also very confident in their idea and you could see the passion they have for this awesome idea that could ultimately become an actual product and benefit others,” said Richardson.

Rivera said the kids were well-prepared for the competition as she incorporates science, technology, engineering, the arts and math into her classroom lessons.

“It’s a big push to get the students to know that a lot of our future is based on this,” said Rivera. “When they do different challenges for me, which are hands-on, they’re having fun and are engaged, but to know that this could be based on real life. You’re creating a tower out of cups, so how can this actually help you. They’re doing this all of the time.”

After presenting in the regionals, the parents added the three girls were relieved to be able to go back to recess because they took time out of their school day, and after school, to work on the project.

“They sacrificed a lot,” said Roes. “They believed in it, so they did it without complaint. When it was said and done, they were like ‘so now let’s go back to jumping rope on the playground!’”

All agreed that if their project was chosen as the winner, they would be excited and thrilled to have the chance to officially start the patent process.

“It’s just icing on the cake,” said Engle. “The girls went into this with no intention or thoughts in their minds of getting this product patented, produced, or marketed, the experience and the potential for it to go somewhere big is rewarding.”

“I would be like ‘oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,’” exclaimed Jillian.

As far as their futures, the girls said they hope to do something related to the project in high school. Their parents added they would take the opportunity to do something like the competition again, if presented with it. Richardson added DiFabio and Calandra hope to make the app a reality and open a nonprofit.