Career Classroom: Vo-tech students among Governor’s STEM Scholars focused on future discoveries, innovation

March is STEM Month in New Jersey, a focused time to highlight the state’s accomplishments in science, technology, engineering, math and innovation. Efforts this month further position New Jersey as a leader in STEM, with the goal to expand opportunities in these disciplines and attract talent to seize those opportunities.

One ambitious group of high school and college students, the Governor’s STEM Scholars, are annually selected to join New Jersey’s STEM community to engage in high-level learning opportunities and networking. State leaders hope participants will remain in the state for college and to launch their own careers in STEM.

This year’s class of Governor’s STEM Scholars consists of 131 scholars from 20 New Jersey counties. Among them are 30 students from New Jersey’s county vocational-technical schools, making up an impressive 23% of the class. These students already have committed to focusing their high school learning in STEM career programs, which makes them strong candidates for the STEM Scholars program.

Neeraj Venna, a Hunterdon County Academies senior in the Biomedical Sciences Academy program, is among this year’s class of Governor’s STEM Scholars. ­— Hunterdon County Academies

Neeraj Venna, a Hunterdon County Academies senior in the Biomedical Sciences Academy program, part of the Hunterdon County Vocational School District, put together an impressive application for the STEM Scholars program that included independent research conducted on three-dimensional stem cell culturing techniques and various other areas related to biomedical engineering. He also included his participation in the Inspirit AI Scholars program, during which he successfully created a computer vision system to help diagnose pneumonia from chest X-rays.

“The BSA definitely helped me stand out to be selected for the (STEM Scholars) program, because it introduced me to many extracurricular opportunities involving research that allowed me to gain important knowledge about STEM,” Venna said. “Specifically, taking the biomedical engineering course … helped me learn more about the field, which I am now planning to major in. I highlighted this in my essays for the program, which I felt played a large role in why I was selected.”

The Governor’s STEM Scholars program is a public-private partnership among the Research & Development Council of New Jersey, the New Jersey Governor’s Office, the New Jersey Department of Education, the New Jersey Office of the Secretary of Higher Education and the state’s leading research companies. Such partnerships create a robust program that connects scholars with STEM professionals across the state at their places of business and in their laboratories, as well as at conferences.

Yeheira Acosta, a sophomore at Cumberland County Technical Education Center, found great value in the three conferences she has attended this year as a STEM Scholar. Each was followed by an in-depth look at STEM in action in real-world settings. During a visit with United Airlines at Newark Liberty International Airport, Acosta learned how the planes are built, in addition to how technology is used to continuously improve airport operations. At Bristol Myers Squibb, she learned about efforts to analyze and improve products to benefit consumers.

Acosta was especially motivated by her time at Princeton University, where she met chemistry professor and Nobel Peace Prize winner David W.C. MacMillian and saw the university’s labs full of “women leading chemistry experiments,” she remarked.

Yeheira Acosta attends a conference and tour of Rutgers University as a Governor’s STEM Scholar. – Cumberland County Technical Education Center

She also appreciated the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with STEM professionals during a “Speed Networking” activity at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“I was able to ask questions and learn how they use STEM to help their companies out and improve their industries’ goals,” Acosta explained. “I’ve learned that I have to find my passion in STEM and pursue it by making connections, developing plans and finding true joy in what I do.”

Acosta said her experience attending the Information Technology program at Cumberland County Technical Education Center has already inspired her to pursue a future in the technology industry. She credited having teachers who challenge her combined with a focused curriculum with helping her secure a spot as a STEM Scholar — as a sophomore. And, she is confident in the skills she is contributing to her STEM Scholar research group.

Each scholar participates in a research or engineering design project to help advance the work of the New Jersey research community. Acosta’s group is involved in a project using AI to detect melanoma in different skin tones.

STEM in NJ County Vocational-Technical Schools

For a closer look at some of the most sought-after STEM-based career programs offered across New Jersey’s county vocational-technical schools, view these videos showcasing:

“My project has sections of code, specifically Python, and my experience with Python (in high school) has helped me contribute to and understand my project even more,” she said. She also noted that her high school experience has already given her additional competencies, including “project management skills, creativity and problem-solving skills that I apply constantly as we develop and finalize our research project.”

STEM Scholar Sofia Colella, a classmate of Venna’s at Hunterdon County’s BSA, is also working on research tied to her career interests. Deciding between a future in either research or medicine, she has found fulfillment in a project that combines both with the potential to result in new legislation to address a current EMS shortage.

After surveying both EMS squads and high schools throughout New Jersey, Colella and her team hope to use data to express the need for first aid, CPR and mental health literacy among high school students in the state, in addition to suggesting ways to incorporate it into the curriculum.

Sofia Colella, a senior in the Biomedical Sciences Academy program, part of the Hunterdon County Vocational School District, is among this year’s class of Governor’s STEM Scholars. – Hunterdon County Vocational School District

“Ideally, our final goal is to be able to draft legislation that requires a CPR/first aid course for high school students within every high school in New Jersey,” she added. “So far, we have over 800 responses across all our surveys, which we are currently using to put together our data analysis.”

Colella said her focus on research as a STEM Scholar has aided her with a capstone project she has taken on as part of her high school coursework. She now has a greater understanding of how to structure her research and ask the right questions. The focus of that project is to determine the effects of video games on the stress levels of high school students.

Colella said that, beyond the research component, her experience in the Governor’s STEM Scholars program has given her a broader view of what she calls, “the large world of STEM” in New Jersey.

“This program allows you to network, make connections and truly see everything the state of New Jersey has to offer for our future career goals and aspirations,” she emphasized. “It is helping students visualize just how they can use their passion to make an impact in our communities.”

Conversation Starters

Employers interested in contributing to students’ learning in STEM are invited to become business partners with a county school by visiting

Reach Hunterdon County Vocational School District at: or call 908-284-1444.

Reach Cumberland County Technical Education Center at: or call 856-451-9000.