Harlem Academy Students Shine at Virtual Science Fair

Date Posted:  Thursday, May 27, 2021

Earlier this month, our eighth graders presented their experiments at Harlem Academy’s fourth annual science fair. While this year’s virtual event may have looked different, the quality of our students’ work met the same high standards. 

“Generating science experiments in a virtual, socially-distanced format is difficult, and our eighth graders did an incredible job,” says middle school science teacher Dr. Eric James.

Students recorded digital presentations that were shown online and responded to questions submitted by our school community as part of their follow-up homework. Their topics ran the gamut from technology to wellbeing: Will using your phone in grayscale reduce screen time? Does following a structured morning routine increase productivity? 

To find the answers to these and other questions, students applied the scientific method – a process they begin learning in first grade. Harlem Academy’s science program focuses on teaching students to understand and apply the scientific method with increasing independence. By the time they reach eighth grade, students form their own hypotheses and design experiments to test them. 

Eighth grader Micaela, who tested the impact of grayscale on screen time, reflected on how much she gained from the process of designing and conducting her experiment independently. “Dr. James is there if we have questions, but he pushes us to take the lead. It was up to me to use what I’ve learned to figure things out on my own, and the scientific method was my guide,” she says. “That’s an important skill to have as I head to Riverdale this fall.” 

Micaela came up with the idea for her experiment because of the pandemic. “Life has changed so much, and we’re on our phones constantly for entertainment and to connect with family and friends. Kids my age are used to seeing things in color, and I wanted to know if switching to grayscale would make us spend less time on our phones.” The answer? Yes.

Classmate Chaeli wanted to find out if practicing a morning routine would increase productivity throughout the day. “I was confident that it would, and it felt good to prove my hypothesis,” she says.

As Dr. James explains, “Science projects are an amazing opportunity for students to learn to think critically about science through hands-on inquiry. It also requires them to synthesize new information, develop and enhance their analytical, organizational, and time management skills, and gain better command of data.”

Chaeli agrees: “Conducting these science experiments and having the chance to present your work makes you a better student. We had real ownership of our projects. That gives you a sense of independence – a feeling of ‘I can do this!’”

Thank you to the Harry Winston Hope Foundation and Con Edison for sponsoring our middle school science program.


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Tags:  science STEM middle school

Science Takes Center Stage

Date Posted:  Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Will listening to a fast song make your pulse race? That was the question on eighth-grader Justice Dandridge’s mind as she began working on her independent science project.

Earlier this month, Justice and fellow eighth-graders presented their experiments at Harlem Academy’s second annual science fair. Our science program focuses on teaching students to understand and apply the scientific method with increasing independence. By the time they reach eighth grade, students are ready to conceive their own hypotheses and design experiments to test them. The science fair projects showcased those skills.

“When students are given the chance to explore on their own, it allows for depth of processing,” says Dr. Eric James, middle school science teacher. “Understanding science is all about process. It’s about learning to break things down, figure out bottlenecks, address problems, and find solutions. Plus, the fair gives students the opportunity to make presentations – a skill that will serve them well in high school, college, and beyond.”

As proud parents and teachers stopped by each project, students explained how they formed their hypotheses, accounted for variables, and conducted their experiments – never shying away from answering a variety of questions. When asked how she came up with her experiment, Justice shared a personal connection: “I love music and I realized that when I listen to fast songs, I feel hyped up. And slow songs calm me down. I wanted to see if that was true for other people.”

Over the course of several days, Justice measured her subjects’ heart rates before and after they listened to certain music. “I picked songs of different genres and tempos, and I made sure to write down each person’s heart rate before we began, as a base line,” she explained. “For example, my friend’s pulse started at 80 beats per minute (BPM) and after she listened to the first song, which was a fast remix, her pulse went up to 133 beats per minute.” Justice then calculated and recorded the average BPMs for each trial and analyzed her data. The result? “My hypothesis was right!” she said, excitedly.

No matter the outcome of their experiments, our students agree that going through the process and presenting to the public made it all worthwhile. “I like that the science fair lets us be creative in developing our projects and gives us the opportunity to explain our experiments,” said Justice.

Isabel Pacin, who tested the effectiveness of specific hair products, added: “This experience helps us gain a better understanding of the scientific method. There is no hand holding. We have to figure it out for ourselves. And that’s a good thing.”

Thank you to the Harry Winston Hope Foundation and Con Edison for sponsoring our middle school science program

Tags:  middle school science STEM

Learning From the Pros

Date Posted:  Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Eighth-grader David Fabian recalls barely being able to contain his excitement when he looked down at the item on his desk. “I had been waiting for that moment for weeks,” he says about the long-anticipated seventh-grade science class. “We were actually going to dissect a brain!” A sheep’s brain, to be exact.

It was the culminating assignment in Harlem Academy’s innovative partnership with the Columbia University Department of Neuroscience, which brings scientists into the classroom to lead a two-month study of the brain as part of the seventh-grade human biology curriculum.

“I had been considering science as a career, but I wasn’t really sure about it until then,” says David, who credits his time with the Columbia neuroscientists for helping make up his mind. “Working with them made me more interested in science.”

As part of our customized program, students design, conduct, and interpret a variety of weekly experiments that show the connection between the scientific method and making discoveries about the human body. “I did a knee-jerk test, a touch receptor experiment, a pupillary reflex test, and ultimately a full brain dissection,” says Nyah Williams, who is now in eighth grade. “I learned that everything you do is connected to your brain.”

Many middle-schoolers would like to pursue STEM-related careers, but without access to advanced math and science classes they will be ill-prepared. “I want to make sure there is a space in the STEM pipeline for everyone with a passion and appetite for this work,” says Head of School Vinny Dotoli. “It’s critical not just for their own futures, but for society as a whole. Today’s STEM classes are tomorrow’s cures and innovations. This program illuminates the path.”

Meaningful partnerships with outside professionals engage students, notes Mr. Dotoli.  “Students are motivated when they can draw clear links between science concepts, future career paths, and the impact they can have on the world,” he says.

Eight weeks together in the classroom enables seventh-graders to build real connections with the neuroscientists. Students eagerly pepper them with questions not just about the experiments, but also about their work. “It didn’t feel like I was being taught out of a book,” says Nyah. “I got a more realistic view of science because the neuroscientists do this work to make discoveries that affect real people. Learning from them helped us to imagine ourselves in their role someday.”

Students also visit Columbia University’s medical campus to tour some of the labs and present to the scientists topics they’ve studied.

David finished up the unit thinking about next steps on his path to becoming a scientist – what he’ll study in high school and which colleges have top programs. And Nyah began pondering a future that combines two fields. “I would like to do something involving science, but I also like criminology,” she says. “Maybe I’ll explore forensic science.”

Whatever fields David, Nyah, and future Harlem Academy students ultimately pursue, working with Columbia neuroscientists opens their eyes to potential careers, demystifies an intimidating field of study, and serves as a vital gateway for the next generation.

To learn more about Harlem Academy’s partnerships with professionals, click here.

Tags:  middle school science STEM

Inspiring Future Scientists

Date Posted:  Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Alexandria Brown ’14 and Anais Marston ’14 shared more than friendship when they were students at Harlem Academy – they also shared a love of science. As they prepare to begin their freshman year in college this fall – Alexandria at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and Anais at Northeastern – the two continue to follow a similar path. Both plan to become engineers.

Alexandria and Anais credit Harlem Academy with spurring their interest in the field.

“I love doing challenging science experiments and hands-on projects, and that was a big focus of our work in science at Harlem Academy,” says Anais. One of her standout experiences was a building project she worked on in her eighth-grade applied science class. “The project had aspects of physics, architecture, and design – a combination I’m drawn to,” Anais recalls. “Working on it helped to solidify my interest in engineering.”



For Alexandria, it was exposure to professionals that helped to fuel her scientific passion. Each year our middle-schoolers visit RPI to delve into applied science projects and work closely with professors. “I added RPI to my list of colleges specifically because of those trips,” says Alexandria. “That’s when I first learned what a good STEM school it is.”

Plus, it gave her the chance to meet RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson. “Her journey showed me that with hard work and dedication, I can be successful in this field regardless of the odds stacked against me.”

Now, as soon-to-be college freshmen, these two friends are fulfilling their dreams and breaking down barriers in the STEM field. They both hope more girls follow in their footsteps.

“It’s critical for women of color to enter STEM because we bring unique skills and perspectives to the field,” says Anais. 

Alexandria agrees, adding, “As young girls grow up, it’s important that they don’t think their options are limited just because they don’t see many women – especially women of color – in STEM fields. They need to know that their futures are limitless.”


Alexandria with Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, president of RPI and on the Harlem Academy advisory council.


Tags:  alumni secondary school college science STEM

Growth by Design: Building Skills and Character through Architecture

Blog Type:  Upper School Date Posted:  Monday, March 19, 2018

An all-natural hair salon. A combination farmer’s market/restaurant. A pottery studio. None of these businesses exists in a certain section of Harlem – not yet anyway. They were just a few of the creative projects designed by our eighth-grade class and presented to a panel of professional architects at the renowned firm Rafael Viñoly Architects (RVA).

Delali Lyons' pottery studio model.

As part of their applied science class, Harlem Academy eighth graders spent the past six weeks working with RVA architects. Their goal was to develop a model of a business that would fill a need in the community. Over the course of the sessions, students explored architectural history, learned to make blueprints, and then set to work developing design concepts. After receiving feedback from the architects and making revisions, the students built 3-D models of their designs.

“This is when things got exciting,” said Jacob Douenias, team leader at RVA who led the workshops. “The students really started to think about the details of space, light, and circulation.”

The students worked within standard constraints faced by architects: the building must be no more than 1,000 square feet of floor space, a maximum height of 30 feet, and set back a minimum of 30 feet from the property line. “During my time working with the class, I saw tremendous skills development, especially in constructive geometry, spatial thinking, and conceiving and refining an idea,” noted Mr. Douenias. “Architecture is a great way to teach many skills.”

The time the eighth graders spent mulling over feedback and reassessing their designs illustrates the tenacity, active listening, and creativity expressed in our school creed. “The students really took advantage of the process,” said Meredith Philbin, lead middle school science teacher at Harlem Academy. “They sketched out and revised ideas that varied in function and aesthetics – just how professional architects complete the design process.”

Essence Johnson presents to the jury.

The unit culminated with a visit to RVA, where students took turns presenting their designs and 3-D models to a “jury” of architects. One by one they fielded questions, listened to critiques, and defended their ideas.

“The jury process in architecture is a very important learning experience,” said Jay Bargmann, Harlem Academy trustee and Senior Vice President at RVA. “These students were very receptive to criticism and suggestions. I was impressed by their confidence and poise, and their verbal and visual communication skills.”

One of the most important things eighth grader Ti-Shauna Penny learned from her turn before the jury was the benefit of feedback. Although a bit nervous as she stood to make her presentation, Ti-Shauna embraced the experience. “You have to learn to accept feedback in order to make any project you’re working on better. I really listened to the constructive criticism because I knew it would help me grow.”

Her fellow classmate, Yealie Ulaba-Samura, felt the same way. “You can’t get defensive when someone gives you constructive criticism because in the long run it helps you. There’s always room for improvement in everything you do.”

Tags:  architecture science

Celebrating Science

Blog Type:  Upper School Date Posted:  Thursday, February 1, 2018
The proud students posing before their big presentations.

Will plants grow if they are “watered” with coffee? Is the five-second rule true? Do snacks affect a student’s memory? These were just a few of the questions answered at Harlem Academy's very first science fair.

This week, our eighth-grade class presented their projects to proud parents and teachers. Harlem Academy's science program focuses on teaching children to think creatively and understand the scientific method; our students’ projects showcased both. "We are putting an emphasis on independent science research," says Meredith Philbin, middle school science teacher. "The fair is a celebration of that learning, as well as an opportunity to practice presentation skills."

As guests walked from project to project, students described how they formed their hypotheses, accounted for variables, and conducted their experiments. As they explained their results, they eagerly fielded a variety of questions. Matthew, who tested how different drinks affect plant growth, smiled when asked why coffee was second best after water. “My guess is that the other drinks all had sugar, but I’d have to design another experiment to test that hypothesis!” Clearly, Matthew was ready to respond to any question.

Matthew ready to present his findings.

And in case you were wondering about the other questions, the five-second rule is more false than true and carrots appear to be a great snack for improving an eighth-grader's memory.

Thank you to the Harry Winston Hope Foundation and Con Edison for sponsoring our middle school science program.

Tags:  science middle school

Harlem Academy Spotlighted in MIT Technology Review

Date Posted:  Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Students observe the water in Lake George from a research vessel at RPI last spring.

Every spring, Harlem Academy middle school students look forward to traveling upstate to spend a few days at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the nation’s oldest technological research university. Having a chance to conduct experiments, present their findings, work with professors, and stay in the dorms, is a big part of the lure. The other is Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of RPI.

As a trailblazer in the field of science and a longtime supporter of Harlem Academy, Dr. Jackson is a role model for our students. Not only does she host our middle-schoolers at RPI year after year, she also spends time with them at Harlem Academy, sharing inspiring details of her journey as the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT.

Harlem Academy’s partnership with Dr. Jackson and RPI gives fifth- through eighth-graders the opportunity to explore science in new ways and work one-on- one with some of the best scientific minds in the country. We’re proud that our partnership was recently recognized in MIT Technology Review :

For the past 15 years, Jackson has worked closely with an independent school in New York City
called Harlem Academy, which provides a rigorous education to low-income students from first
to eighth grade. Each year, the academy’s older students spend three days at RPI, exploring
science and university life.

The school’s leader, Vinny Dotoli, says that Jackson is not only an inspiration to his students but
also a dedicated mentor to him. “She always talks to me about pushing myself more and going
out on a limb more,” he says, “but she’ll do it in a way that feels encouraging, where I walk away
feeling excited to dive back into the work.”

We’d like to thank MIT for spotlighting Harlem Academy in the article and Dr. Jackson for her continued
support. We look forward to the next 15 years of collaboration and to generations of budding scientists
following in Dr. Jackson’s distinguished footsteps.

Tags:  science Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rising to Challenges: Catching Up with Miles Williams '16

Date Posted:  Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Harlem Academy guides our students to thrive at the highest academic levels.  Miles Williams ’16 was not challenged by his former school, so he came to Harlem Academy.  Now he is attending one of the most challenging schools in the nation.  We caught up with him in his freshman year at Lawrenceville to see how Harlem Academy prepared him.

Miles explores the library at Lawrenceville.

Lawrenceville’s bucolic campus, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, is a far cry from the repurposed storefronts of Harlem Academy. Miles points, however, to the strength of his preparation at Harlem Academy to meet the academic rigor of his new school.

This is not the first time that Miles has had to adjust to a demanding environment. He excelled in his fourth-grade class at a New York City public school, reading above grade level, and tutoring a classmate in math and reading each week.

Miles with his parents at the 2016
Harlem Academy graduation.

His mother knew, however, that a student with his abilities needed more rigorous learning to reach his potential. On the application to Harlem Academy she wrote, “I am very concerned that Miles is not being challenged. It is a good school, and we learn at home, but Miles needs consistent work at his level.”

At Harlem Academy, Miles found the challenge that he and his mother were seeking.

New Discoveries

“When I took my first trimester exams at HA, I did poorly on all of them,” he says. “Before I came to Harlem Academy, I had no idea what studying was. My teachers noticed, and they introduced me to what good work habits are all about.”

Miles and his teachers knew that he had the potential to succeed at a school as rigorous as Harlem Academy, but it took hard work and perseverance to get there.

“The line in the creed that resonates most for me is the last one: I don’t give up,” he says. “I have to keep reminding myself that I can’t give up meeting the standards, but I also can’t give up improving myself and raising the standards.”

At Harlem Academy, he discovered new passions. He developed a love for science, and Harlem Academy’s curriculum gave him a chance to explore the subject in depth. The middle school’s annual three-day trips to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute introduced him to chemistry, something he continues to pursue.

Miles introduces a classmate as part of Harlem Academy's
graduation in June 2016.

Life at Lawrenceville

In his first year at Lawrenceville, Miles has thrown himself into challenging coursework, including geometry and French.

“Lawrenceville requires a lot of its students,” he says.  “If I hadn't attended Harlem Academy, I think I'd be in a lot of trouble. Harlem Academy instilled in me a very good work ethic.”

He’s keeping busy with a host of clubs and extracurricular activities, including chess, improvisational acting, and competitive rock climbing.

Miles hitting the slopes for the first time this winter.

“At first, I was nervous about standing out,” he says. “My mom said to just put myself out there and try new things. I don’t think I would have listened to her if that idea hadn’t been taught so strongly at Harlem Academy.”

Miles is especially excited about the Chemistry Olympiad Club competition. This involves several successive rounds, first within the school, then at national research centers, and culminating in an international competition where the top four American students will represent their country. He’s motivated by the possibility of making it to the end of this competition, but he knows he’ll need perseverance and initiative to get there.

“I don’t think I’ll get that far this year or even next year,” he says, “but I know that I want to do things like that eventually. I spend a few hours a week studying from a massive, college-level chemistry textbook. I’ll learn what I can and take notes and create flash cards. We’ll see what happens.”

In the meantime, Miles is happy to explore all that his new school has to offer.

“At Lawrenceville, there are a lot of things to experience that can change you profoundly. If I could talk with new Harlem Academy students, I would tell them to come with an open mind, because you’re going to be exposed to a lot of subjects that are going to be different from what you already know or think. Harlem Academy really cracked a barrier for me so I’m prepared for these opportunities to flow in. Instead of having to figure this out during freshman and sophomore year, I can really experience all four years of high school.”


Tags:  alumni science

Out of the Textbook and Into a Splint

Date Posted:  Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Should you find yourself stranded on a desert island choking on a coconut, or lost deep in the woods with a gash in your leg, you’d better hope that you’re with Harlem Academy students.

Misa and Kyle practice their emergency medicine skills. 
Misa and Kyle practice their emergency medicine skills.

“Our human biology curriculum pushes them far beyond a typical middle school course with engagement around anatomy and physiology,” says science teacher Meredith Philbin. “Most students don’t see this until high school or college.”

A semester-long emergency medicine unit brings the terminology to life and provides a real-world application. Students study protocols for city and wilderness environments and practice executing them in weekly rescue scenarios. 

“Last week, we learned how to treat a bloody wound,” says Caden, an eighth grader. “Clean it and apply direct pressure first. Elevate the wound and keep the pressure as you apply a bandage. Then, only if it really keeps bleeding, apply a tourniquet as a last resort.” Caden can also tell you when and how to use CPR, what to do if someone is in shock, and how to splint a fracture.

“The unit engages each student differently, drawing out their strengths and interests,” says Ms. Philbin. “The kids who are into acting love playing the patient. The leaders like to take charge. We also have a lot of students attending wilderness camps in the summer, so they become more confident about navigating that world.”

This program was first developed by middle school science teacher Allison Duarte in 2012. “A key goal has been to bring doctors and scientists into our classroom to show students potential role models,” says Ms. Duarte. “You never know when a great lesson might spark a career.”

“This is what happens when you make room for innovation,” says Head of School Vinny Dotoli. “If a teacher is excited to try something not already in the curriculum, we always take a look. We’re very intentional, asking ourselves how it will move the mission forward and connect to our educational philosophy, particularly related to skill development. If the answers are there, we run a pilot, track performance, and build on what we learn. It’s a big part of what makes Harlem Academy such an exciting place to teach and learn.”

Special thanks to the Harry Winston Hope Foundation, lead sponsor of Harlem Academy’s middle school science program.

Thank you to Con Edison for their ongoing support of our students' science and technology education.


Tags:  middle school science

Working Side by Side with Scientists

Date Posted:  Saturday, July 9, 2016

It’s 2 p.m. on Thursday in Troy, New York. A group of Harlem Academy fifth and sixth graders are coding a robotic car to navigate the angles, turns, and distances needed to exit a maze. A group of seventh and eighth graders are using laser thermometers to measure the effect of different insulation methods in models they built. Another group is aboard a boat on Lake George testing water samples for zooplankton and sodium under the supervision of leading freshwater scientists.

These are just a few snapshots from the middle school annual trip to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the nation’s oldest technological research university. Rensselaer professors work closely with Harlem Academy to plan specialized programming, introducing students to the various applications of science.

Led by Dr. Farrell, RayJon inspects a water sample under a microscope from Lake George to identify various forms of plankton.
Led by Dr. Farrell, RayJon inspects a water sample under a microscope from Lake George to identify various forms of plankton.

During the three-day trip, the fifth and sixth graders take a survey approach, spending 2.5 hours at 5 different labs, exploring the equipment, and learning about each professor’s work. Meanwhile, the seventh and eighth graders divide into three groups, each focused on testing hypotheses to solve a real-world scientific problem.

On the last day – after two days of seeing professors sharing their research – seventh and eighth graders present their own findings from their investigations to the fifth and sixth graders. 

“Students see and experience firsthand how the scientific method is put into play in labs on a daily basis, and then have the opportunity to complete hands-on experiments,” notes middle school director Leah Weintraub.

As a central component of Harlem Academy’s program, we expose students to a variety of career opportunities and mentors, particularly in science and math. Head of school Vinny Dotoli recounts how eighth grade student, Taneyah developed her interest in biomedical engineering during last year’s trip to RPI. This year, Taneyah and three of her classmates who are also interested in science were able to sit down with Dr. Morris Washington. Vinny adds, “It was fantastic to hear Dr. Washington and the students share their respective research interests, and discuss pathways into science.”

Equally important to the deep exposure to science and its applications is the opportunity for middle schoolers to dive into college life. Leah reflects, “Part of what makes this such a rich opportunity is the chance for students to return year after year. Our students develop a strong sense of belonging on campus, and that is invaluable.”

In addition to science-related activities, students eat at the dining halls, spend time with Rensselaer students, explore the campus, and sleep in the dorms.
In addition to science-related activities, students eat at the dining halls, spend time with Rensselaer students, explore the campus, and sleep in the dorms.
Tags:  science middle school Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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