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Central District sparks a first-place STEM win

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As Advanced Science Research adviser Barbi Frank’s student team hit the stage in Woodbury’s Crest Hollow Country Club on April 11, they were met with thunderous applause from a crowd of more than 900.

The John F. Kennedy High School team had just earned first place in one of Northwell Health’s annual SPARK! Challenge awards. Students from across Long Island competed in the event, with presentation projects covering several hands-on field experiences in Northwell hospitals.

The fifth iteration of the yearlong challenge took high school students directly to professionals in science, technology, engineering and math, giving them the opportunity to explore possible future careers.

“This year’s SPARK! Challenge was the largest since the program’s inception, with 900 students participating,” said Cheryl Davidson, senior director of workforce readiness at Northwell. “They want to learn and discover what a career in health care could offer. They’re able to get hands-on experience in clinical areas so they can choose the direction they want to go — the possibilities are limitless.”

The first-place winners — one of four groups from John F. Kennedy High that took part — visited Glen Cove Hospital’s operating room to observe preparation and sterilization routines prior to a surgery. Led by Frank, the team comprised students Kenar Gelman, Randi Finkelstein, Pierce Infuso, Jake Levine, Peter Giannaris, David Frank, Claudia Dreyer, Whitney Sussman, Jonathan Mashal, Hunter Moran, Noah Kava, Ashley Camisso and Lauren Rhakimov.

The prize was originally supposed to be $2,000 for STEM initiatives in the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District. During a congratulatory speech, however, Northwell President and CEO Michael Dowling promised that the awards would be doubled, meaning $4,000 for the district — and the crowd burst into applause.

“You can probably find most careers within health care,” Dowling said. “You get to wake up every day and say, ‘I am going to a place where its sole purpose is to make life a little better for everyone else’ — because that’s what health care does every day. It connects us all.”

The group’s first-place prize was awarded for a poster depicting the scene they observed when health care professionals hosted them in Glen Cove. With the illustrated words “Surgical Technician” lining the top, the poster depicts the awareness doctors must have when protecting patients and preventing infections.

After the awards, the team’s artist, Rhakimov, explained how she tried to match the look of the clean surgical room at Glen Cove Hospital, including the accompanying pieces of medical technology. The team learned that becoming a surgical technician offers benefits such as job growth, high earning potential and constant stimulation — and that was also shown on the poster.

Baldwin and Glen Cove High Schools won awards in the presentation competition, too. Baldwin also received a nod from a Facebook poll hosted by Northwell, which chose its poster of a Long Island Jewish Valley Stream Hospital visit as a fan favorite.

Valley Stream Central High School was also honored with third place in the poster competition, which meant a $1,000 award for the district.

In December, the Herald joined Kennedy’s culinary group as they visited Northwell’s Plainview Hospital. From inside the building’s kitchen, the group competed to make the healthiest but tastiest pizza possible — proving that students can learn from areas beyond the typical operating rooms.

“To see students come here and believe that they now can become a nurse or a doctor or an administrator or radiologist, that’s what it’s about,” Dowling said. “It gives them a broader perspective. When you expose people to what’s possible, it generates ideas in their minds about what they can actually do. I wish I had something like this available to me when I was in high school.”