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Student Argonaut Learns Relevance of STEM Topics


Noor Mohamed-Salinas now sees how they can be applied in the real world photo – CEI

By Mara Soloway

Noor Mohamed-Salinas was once like many students who didn’t quite get the relevance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) topics in her own or the larger world. But the JASON Argonaut program changed all that. JASON Learning is a nonprofit that provides learning experiences in STEM for K-12 students and professional development for teachers. For the 2017 JASON Argonaut program last school year, Fort Bend ISD chose Noor, who was an eighth-grader at Bowie Middle School at the time, as its student representative, along with a science teacher at First Colony Middle School, Michael Harvey.

During the eight days they spent last July at the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI) in The Bahamas, Noor and Michael were part of a group with four other students and four teachers. Working with other Argonauts from around the world, they took part in one of CEI’s research areas: tagging and studying sea turtles. The experience opened Noor’s mind to how STEM is applied in ecological and environmental ways that benefit people and the planet.

The days at CEI alternated between studying the turtles’ diet of sea grass and tagging them so they can be tracked. “The turtles we found were juveniles so they weighed about 10 to 15 pounds, with the biggest being about 30 pounds,” Noor said. The days began with a hike through mangrove forests carrying their equipment to the research boat.

Noor learned how to properly catch and hold a sea turtle so it can be tagged. It isn’t as easy as one might think. “We were on a small boat, and you start looking for them as they come up to take their breaths. Someone gets on the side of the boat wearing a snorkel and jumps in. You chase them and catch them by their ‘armpits.’ If that person can’t catch them, then the next person jumps in and the next person. It took us five people one time,” she said.

“They’re actually way faster than I thought they were going to be – they were zooming. And they take a lot of turns. I was swimming in a circle after a turtle one time.”

Back at the institute, students reflected in their notebook about topics such as what they did for the first time and new science they had learned. They did team building exercises and also had fun adventures at a tourist spot and a pink-sand beach.

Michael found working with Noor on this trip to be inspirational. “It was awesome to see a young woman so interested in science. Noor was a team member that everyone loved to work with, and she really stepped up when a volunteer was needed. When it came time to go out on the boat and capture sea turtles for the first time, her hand shot in the air volunteering to go. During our lectures that we attended, she was constantly taking notes and asking great questions,” he said.

Noor, who is now a 14-year-old freshman at Travis High School, went through a rigorous selection process to become an Argonaut. Only one student and one teacher were picked from select school districts. She wrote three 500-word essays, created a video about herself, and got two teacher recommendations and a sponsor to help her take care of the details like getting a physical and updating her passport. Her mom Silvia took on this last role and thanks Fort Bend ISD for how they surprised Noor with a special reception to announce her being chosen as the 2017 Argonaut, and for their financial support. “They make her feel very special. And they were always in contact with Noor about what she needed. They were very well organized,” Silvia said.

Noor is inspired by her parents. “My mom has always encouraged me to study engineering. My grandpa is an engineer. My mom says I have potential because I’m good at math and I think outside of the box. She even took me to a conference at Rice University for Women in Engineering. My dad also wants me to pursue a STEM career.” Silvia works in international relations and her husband Aladdin is an economist. Noor also has a younger brother and sister.

“We couldn’t be more proud of her. She got the best of both my and my husband’s cultures. We encourage her to do as much as she can,” Noor’s mom said. “To follow her dreams is the most important thing.” Because her mom is from Mexico and her dad is from Sudan, Noor has also visited both countries, along with Turkey and Egypt and parts of the U.S. Besides traveling, she is also passionate about being on the Freshman Dance Team.

Like the original Argonauts from Greek mythology, student Argonauts also pursue difficult projects. To Noor, an Argonaut is “someone who is interested in STEM and really wants to do something to make a difference that can change the world.” This semester she is taking the engineering pathway of the STEM endorsement. As a result of her life-changing experience at the Cape Eleuthera Institute, she sees what kind of career opportunities are possible for her. “While I was there I learned that engineering isn’t just about the oil industry – you can use it to help. I would like to study some type of engineering, hopefully at Rice. I’m interested in the health of our oceans and the marine animals that live in them,” Noor said. “I already knew that a lot of animals were in danger because of oil spills and waste, but now I know more about it and I definitely want to do more.”

Being at CEI also taught her about reducing and reusing waste. “They’re compressing plastic they find in the ocean into bricks. They also found a way to turn plastic back into oil. It’s really cool.” The institute also recycles its food waste as feed for pigs on its farm and as compost.

Noor is looking into opportunities to study at CEI again and in Peru with one of its partners, Earthwatch. Her positive attitude and love of learning are contagious to those around her. Michael Harvey definitely noticed. “Nobody on the team demonstrated more cheer than Noor. By the end of the trip she was asking how she can find a way to come back to the Island School for a semester of study,” he said.

“I was so proud of her and how she represented the students and teachers of Fort Bend ISD.”

Teacher Michael Harvey works with Noor Mohamed-Salinas on identifying plants as part of their participation in the JASON Argonaut program in The Bahamas.

Teacher Michael Harvey works with Noor Mohamed-Salinas on identifying plants as part of their participation in the JASON Argonaut program in The Bahamas. photo – CEI

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