These Unique Programs and Courses Engage NJ Students of All Ages

Highlights range from Centenary University’s brand-new Master’s in Happiness Studies to Lodi High School’s biomedical lab that mimics a real hospital.

Illustration of figure holding open diploma from which colorful butterflies are emerging

Illustration by Anna Godeassi

Centenary University unveils Master’s in Happiness Studies

You’ve heard of overpriced, oversold promises from self-help coaches and New Age retreats before. (And who wouldn’t be vulnerable to being duped after these past two exceptionally challenging years?) 

The rise of snake-oil salesmen is no secret to anyone reading the news or binge-watching Netflix’s extensive true crime or reality TV selections. (One of the most notable examples: Billy McFarland of Short Hills, an alum of Basking Ridge’s prestigious prep school, Pingry, who was convicted of fraud in 2018 after his ill-fated Fyre Festival.) 

Yet the trailblazing Master of Arts degree in happiness studies—the first of its kind in the country—promises to be different. It’s being offered at Hackettstown’s Centenary University this fall. 

“I always say to students, first and foremost, ‘This is an academic program,’” says Tal Ben-Shahar, the program’s founder and a professor of happiness studies. “This is not some self-help or New Age program. It’s not just that it feels good to feel good. Increasing levels of happiness has numerous by-products.”  

The interdisciplinary degree is an online, 30-credit program consisting of eight classes, says Ben-Shahar, a former Harvard professor who taught the Ivy League’s two largest classes in its history, on positive psychology and the psychology of leadership. It is geared toward anyone who feels they could benefit from the practical knowledge offered via the degree, and can help those who wish to be more creative, productive, present and kind, he says. 

Students are set to study a diverse array of disciplines, from thousand-year-old philosophies such as Taoism, a belief system birthed in China about living a simple and balanced life in harmony with nature, and Ubuntu, an African maxim that hails community as supreme, to the modern field of positive psychology, the scientific study of what makes life worth living. (No pressure.) 

The program is even going to scrutinize cinema, such as the hit 1998 film The Truman Showa psychological science fiction satire starring Jim Carrey as a man who realizes that he has been living his entire life as part of a reality television show.  

“It asks, ‘How can I help myself and how can I help others increase levels of well-being?’” Ben-Shahar says of the curriculum. “Having this knowledge can help a manager who is running a team or organization, it can help a teacher leading a classroom, it can very much help coaches and therapists; not to mention, it can help parents become better role models for their children.” 

The program’s partnership with the 155-year-old private liberal arts institution was serendipitous for both parties, says president Bruce Murphy. 

“Like most people, when you hear masters in Happiness Studies, you’re like, Wait a minute? What is this?” he jokes. However, Murphy says, he was impressed by its rigor and sound academic basis, studying theoreticians, scholars and philosophers all the way back to Aristotle and Confucius.  

Will happiness studies fall victim to the same criticism that the billion-dollar wellness industry (think: Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop empire) has endured—namely, that it’s taking advantage of people? Ben-Shahar believes the truth is more complicated. While he admits that some of the complaints are well deserved, he rejects the notion that pursuing happiness is either selfish or selfless. 

“We get our best ideas when we stop and reflect—when we ask questions—and this is exactly what we are asking of our students.” Not doing so, he believes, “is compromising our potential for making the most of our life.” (Again, no pressure.)  

It is safe to say that the program won’t solve the country’s looming threats to democracy, its gutted healthcare system amid a pandemic or increasing income inequality in an inflation crisis, but the difference is that happiness studies is not guising itself as an end-all solution. Falyn Stempler

Lodi High offers hands-on medical learning

Students in Lodi High School's biomedical lab

Lodi High School has opened a biomedical lab, part of which is designed to look like a real hospital. Photo courtesy of Lodi High School

Is there a doctor in the school? Students at Lodi High School who are interested in pursuing a medical career gained a unique opportunity this year when the Bergen County school unveiled its biomedical and exercise science lab. 

Led by science teacher and former EMT Virginia Fasulo, the lab features high-tech equipment to help students become familiar with treating patients. Part of the lab is made to look like a hospital, with hospital beds separated by curtains and two mannequins in hospital gowns. Named Aries and Juno, the mannequins have moving eyes that can be changed to different colors to represent various illnesses and moving torsos to simulate breathing. Monitors behind the “patients” display their vitals.

Students use a tablet to control the mannequins and a virtual-reality headset to look at organs and more, giving them a closer look at how the human body works.

The lab, which cost about $1 million to build, also has machines for students interested in exercise science and physical therapy. 

The lab is used in classes including Honors anatomy and physiology, AP biology and dynamics in healthcare, and by the premed club, which is open to all students. 

The hands-on learning is key for students. “It feels like a conversation more than a class,” says Anthony Rodriguez, while Shaniya Richberg adds, “It gives us…a greater, broader perspective, as opposed to just reading stuff in textbooks.”

The school also opened an engineering and construction lab last year, which features 3-D printers, a vinyl cutter, laser-cutting technology and woodshop equipment. The lab also has a T-shirt and hat press. The robotics team, the Roborams, used it to make a logo for their team uniform, and principal Frank D’Amico says students plan to create lettering for logos and mottos to put up on the school’s walls. —Thomas Neira

Scotch Plains-Fanwood schools incorporate arts across disciplines

Students and teachers participate in a workshop on body language and bunraku puppetry

Students and teachers participate in a workshop on body language and bunraku puppetry. Photo courtesy of Joan Mast

Most math classes don’t require drums, but the Scotch Plains-Fanwood public schools march to a different beat than most.

The K-12 Union County district is a big believer in its Arts Integration program, which blends core-curriculum subjects with creative lessons. For example, a math class focused on fractions incorporates djembes and tubanos, two types of African drums. Students learn about the Holocaust through dance and about the anatomy of arthropods through drawing.

The program allows students to learn various skills and subjects while also building a deeper understanding of themselves and their own interests. Artsy, interactive lessons can also make standard subjects more fun. “You might have a student who isn’t into math or understanding his fractions,” says Barbara Prestridge, the district’s Arts Integration specialist and coach. “But this kid, who happens to be a drummer in the band, is drumming all the time in fractions. Musical notation is just another form of fractions. All of a sudden, that guy is newly engaged in his math class.”

Prestridge’s position was created in 2019 after the longtime visual arts teacher found herself weaving other subjects into her classes. She realized bringing the arts into other subjects could galvanize teachers and students alike, and she soon began training and collaborating with other faculty members. With a background in art, Prestridge needs other teachers to make this program work. Fortunately, her peers have bought in, with over 300 teachers and administrators participating in professional-development arts workshops pertaining to painting, drawing, African drumming, opera, Japanese bunraku puppetry, writing and more.

Prestridge says the Arts Integration program has enthused teachers, allowing them to awaken their inner artists. More importantly, she says, “kids are engaging in a way we’ve never seen before.” —Gary Phillips

New Rutgers wine program is cheers-worthy

Beverly Tepper in a vineyard

Beverly Tepper is a food science professor at Rutgers. Photo courtesy of Mark Pausch

When Dr. Beverly Tepper isn’t teaching Rutgers University students how to evaluate taste and smell, the food science professor can be found tending some 8 acres of grapevines in neatly planted rows on her 78-acre farm in Allentown.

Lately, she has harnessed her teaching and farming skills to create a certificate program to produce a skilled workforce for the state’s growing wine industry. “It’s been clear for some time that we need a program at Rutgers to help support the winery industry,” Tepper says. “In New Jersey, there’s a need for workers both in the field and in the tasting room, as well as in the production facility.”

New Jersey boasts more than 50 licensed wineries, up from 38 just 10 years ago, according to the New Jersey Wine Growers Association. A 2016 economic-impact study found that wine, grape and related industries accounted for 1,979 jobs in the state, up 35.4 percent from 2011. Jobs in the wineries and vineyards generated a payroll of $85.57 million.

Tepper entered the wine business in 2015 when she and her partner, Mark Pausch, a retired pharmaceutical research scientist, purchased a former soybean farm. A year later, they planted 19 varieties of grape vines. Three years after that, they began making small batches of wine. Their 2019 Estate Riesling won a gold medal and was recognized as best in show among white wines at the 2020 WineMaker Magazine amateur wine competition.

“I was developing much more of an interest in the area of grapes and wine, and I know how to put programs together,” Tepper says. “It just seemed like a no-brainer to link my professional abilities as an instructor and educator with helping the industry move forward.”

The question was, if they built it, would they come? Apparently, yes. The results of surveys last year by the Rutgers Office of Continuing Professional Education found enthusiasm for the program from undergraduates and alumni. New Jersey winery owners, meanwhile, indicated they could accommodate student internships and would be willing to hire students who completed the program.

Tepper took a five-month sabbatical in January to organize the program. The result is the Grape and Wine Science Certificate Program, which ran this August for four weeks and consisted of in-class learning, hands-on workshops, and visits to vineyards and wineries in the state, followed by a paid internship at a winery. It covered grape growing, winemaking and business operations, and was open to college students and adult learners.

The program is set to run each August in the future. —Monica Cardoza

Madison preps future government leaders

The exterior of Madison High School

Madison High School is hosting the Academy for Government and Leadership, a joint effort with the Morris County Vocational School District. It kicks off this September. Photo courtesy of Joe D’Agostino

Before the pandemic began, Shari Castelli found herself brainstorming a high school program dedicated to teaching students about government and civics. When Covid-19 spread—among other newsworthy and political events—she realized such a program was a necessity.

“If the last couple of years have taught us anything, [it’s that] we need civic engagement,” Castelli, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at the Morris County Vocational School District, says now. “We need leadership. We need folks who really want to inherit and care for our society.”

And so the Academy for Government and Leadership, a joint effort between the Vocational School District and Madison High School, was born. The four-year program begins this September, with the goal of educating students in all matters of government and leadership, including public policy and administration, ethics and international relations. The program culminates with a senior-year internship.

Madison High School is hosting the academy, but all Morris County students can apply. Accepted members become full-time Madison High School students, regardless of their home district. This means they will complete all required classwork at Madison—not just academy courses—and they can participate in all Madison extracurricular activities, such as athletics. David Drechsel, Madison High School’s principal, says that 10-12 students from outside the Madison district are part of the academy’s inaugural class. Students may drop out of the program if they wish, though non-Madison residents would have to return to their home districts.

“The onus is on us in Madison to make sure that students feel like they are getting a really meaningful experience,” says Dan Ross, Madison public schools’ assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and personnel. The hope is that the academy’s unique offerings and opportunities will achieve that. 

Courses include intro to public administration, international relations and diplomacy, and AP government and politics. Relevant speakers from the community are set to interact with students, and an already-existing relationship between the district and local government can help seniors land internships that could springboard them into government careers and other relevant professions. —Gary Phillips

Cumberland students mentor each other

Students in the senior mentorship program at Cumberland Regional High School

The senior mentorship program at Cumberland Regional High School pairs incoming freshman with compatible seniors who assist with their transition to high school. Photo courtesy of Cumberland Regional High School

Ten years ago, parents of freshmen at Cumberland Regional High School were concerned when their children were chosen to participate in the inaugural senior mentorship program. They didn’t want their kids, who were struggling academically, to be singled out, recalls Terence Johnson, assistant principal of the school. 

But now, he says, parents—and students—are fighting over the few dozen spots. “Through a rigorous selection process, Johnson collaborates with guidance counselors and teachers from the seven districts that comprise the regional high school’s student body to flag incoming freshmen who would be a good fit. Those students are then coupled with a compatible senior whose “sole responsibility is to help them in their transition into high school, socially, intellectually and emotionally,” Johnson says. 

“A lot of things that freshmen wouldn’t communicate or share with their parents, from a day-to-day perspective, they have a big brother or sister as a senior mentor that they will share with,” Johnson says. 

The program includes a class that meets daily for one semester, plus outside activities. For the first month, the class features bonding activities, so that the program’s selection committee can best pair up the freshmen and seniors. Each senior is then assigned two or three freshmen, with about 100 freshmen total in the program at a time. “We don’t just immediately assign kids to a mentor, because it’s all about who is best for who,” Johnson says. 

The remainder of the semester is spent on a curriculum based on Joseph M. Hoedel’s textbook, Role Models: Examples of Character and Leadership, which teaches the value of qualities such as preparation, perseverance, respect, honesty and courage. The program has improved students’ self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relational and decision-making skills, says Matt Lawrence-Evans, the high school’s wellness counselor. 

The program is project heavy. One interesting project involves the freshmen writing letters—to their role models, which they read aloud at a ceremony. —Falyn Stempler

Steven Van Zandt’s nonprofit shines in Hopatcong and beyond

Hopatcong students' electric guitars, designed as part of TeachRock's "Designing Electric Guitars with Shapes" lesson

TeachRock lessons implemented in Hopatcong include “Designing Electric Guitars with Shapes” for elementary school students. Photo courtesy of Christine Nick

If anyone knows about the life-altering power of the arts, it’s E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt.

When educators approached Van Zandt more than 15 years ago with news that arts programs in their schools were disappearing amid an increased emphasis on testing, Van Zandt wanted to help. Through his Rock and Soul Forever Foundation, Van Zandt worked with a team of ethnomusicologists and educators to develop an interdisciplinary music curriculum called TeachRock.

“We need to teach our kids how to think, not what to think,” Van Zandt told New Jersey Monthly last year.

Nearly 60,000 educators representing all 50 states are currently registered at for its free lesson plans and materials, which have been endorsed by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

New Jersey is home to TeachRock’s first district-wide partnership, with the four schools comprising the Hopatcong Borough Schools District. Launched in 2020, the collaboration was a significant step for TeachRock—“something that we hold very dear to us,” says program officer Christine Nick.

TeachRock lessons implemented in Hopatcong range from “Designing an Electric Guitar With Shapes” for elementary school students to “What Is Sampling?” for middle and high school students. One English teacher taught the latter lesson in the context of researching and citing sources when writing papers, spurring a discussion about plagiarism. “It was really interesting to hear students…conceptualize academic integrity through the lens of sampling,” says Nick, who observed the curriculum in action. —Jennifer Finn

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