MAST StudentWhen your school actually sits on property owned by the National Park Service (NPS), it seems only natural to find ways for students to benefit from this unique setting.

The Marine Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) is a co-ed four-year high school (grades 9-12), and one of five career academies administered by the Monmouth County Vocational School District. It is located in the Gateway National Recreation Area, which is better known to New Jerseyans as Sandy Hook.

A few years ago, we designed a “Directed Field Research” course to challenge our 12th-grade students in both technology and the marine/environmental sciences. Because the entire Sandy Hook barrier beach ecosystem is one large outdoor classroom/laboratory, we wanted our students to become familiar with the vegetative components of the area. Hopefully this would encourage our students to become active participants in the effort to preserve natural beach areas for our generation and the next.

This course design grew from a professional learning community, but became a reality, in part, thanks to funding from the Frederick L. Hipp Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Our dream: an interactive herbarium

A herbarium is a preserved collection of plants used for identification by scientists or people looking to investigate plants in different vegetative zones.  In conjunction with and permission from, Gateway National Recreation Area, our students have collected, identified, pressed and preserved indigenous plant specimens from the various habitats of the barrier beach ecosystem. Ultimately we wanted them to design and construct an "Interactive Herbarium" that would be made available to our students, students from other districts participating in organized field trips, and the general public.

Specimens were preserved within Riker Boxes and students researched information regarding each species and the particular habitat from which it was taken and included it on labels placed on the back of each box.  These labels include scientific, medicinal and other "local" information regarding the species. 

A "QR Tag" was also fixed to the box so that individuals with "smart phone" technology could gain access to the student-designed and constructed website Species locations were recorded and then mapped using GPS/GIS and included on the website.

We have requested permission from NPS to attach removable Revlar tags on trees and shrubs found along marked trails so that visitors could also use QR codes to access information regardless of the operating hours of the Information Center (where the physical herbarium will be housed). Meanwhile, some students have produced landscape portraits of the dune ecosystem as well as scientific illustrations of individual plant species.

The “Interactive Herbarium” was designed as a five-year project due to the sheer number of species on Sandy Hook. During this time, our students have had the opportunity to interact with local naturalists and wildlife biologists to accurately identify species and habitats, to map individual species using GIS/GPS, and to place the QR tags on selected trail specimens.

Enter the Frederick L. Hipp Foundation for Excellence in Education

NJEA Hipp Foundation - 20th Anniversary

Perhaps you are wondering how we were able to fund such a great project. As frequent readers of both the NJEA Review and the NJEA Reporter, we knew about the grants that the Frederick L. Hipp Foundation for Excellence in Education was offering to educators throughout the state. We decided to throw our hat in the ring. The application process was straightforward, and we were thrilled when the big white envelope arrived in the spring of 2012 to announce the project was accepted. We received a $5,410 grant to fund the Interactive Herbarium.

The importance of funding outside school district parameters allows for independence and creativity in designing and sustaining both new and innovative educational projects. Equally important is the helpfulness of NJEA staff members who work with the grant winners. Their assistance in preparing our budget and spending reports made the process smooth sailing.

Sandy causes a detour

When Superstorm Sandy made landfall along the coast of New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012, our Interactive Herbarium project was drastically altered. MAST sustained major damage that caused our school to be relocated to St. Joseph’s Elementary School in Keyport.

Flooding also destroyed many of the preserved plant specimens, and some pieces of equipment purchased with grant funds were no longer usable. Most important, our access to Sandy Hook and our ability to collect specimens was no longer possible. All field activities came to an abrupt halt.

Despite this setback, our students never gave up, and NJEA was right by our side. The Association’s Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund gave us money to purchase equipment and supplies that had been destroyed. Suddenly, we began to focus more on the interactive part of the herbarium and concentrated on expanding our website and other non-field based activities. When Gateway National Park reopened on May 1, 2013, we were again able to make collection visits for spring specimens.

We also applied for a Hipp continuation grant for the 2013-14 school year and have received $9,998 to make our dream—only temporarily derailed by Sandy—a reality.

Classroom Close-up visits and revisits MAST

Just two weeks before the storm, “Classroom Close-up, NJ” (CCUNJ) came to MAST to film a segment about our project. It was a beautiful fall day, and no one had an inkling that disaster was about to strike.

Only days after Sandy hit, the show’s executive producer, NJEA staffer Wanda Swanson, called us to see if her crew could return to let the show’s viewers know how we survived the storm. In late November, the CCUNJ gang visited us at St. Joseph’s. They continued to follow our story, returning a third time when the seniors in our Directed Field Research class graduated in June. That ceremony took place back at Sandy Hook.

After witnessing their hard work on their Interactive Herbarium project, and then learning that much of it and their school had been devastated by the storm, we just had to return to find out how they were coping, said Wanda Swanson. “We visited their temporary facility, and witnessed a lesson in tenacity. But the real joy was when we returned eight months later to Sandy Hook to be part of their graduation ceremony. It was a roller-coaster of emotions that we were privileged to document on our show.”

To watch the three CCUNJ segments, go to, click on the Video Library logo, and search for “Interactive Herbarium.”

The journey continues

The Hipp Foundation is a great resource for educators to bring their innovative ideas to life,” notes Dawn Hiltner, an NJEA associate director who oversees the foundation. “Hurricane Sandy presented unusual challenges and opportunities for our grant winners, so we kept in close contact to ensure they were still able to meet the needs of their students and achieve the goals of their projects. When it comes down to it, our grant winners are the experts so it is important to give them the flexibility and support they need to be successful.”

It’s hard to put in words what our association with the Hipp Foundation has meant to us. Now in the second year of funding, our project goals are being fulfilled and future ideas are coming into view. It was invigorating to present our story at the NJEA Convention in November and give demonstrations of our projects (in the Great Ideas Forum) to teachers from around the state. And when we met our fellow grant winners at the Celebration of Excellence on Friday at  the convention, we felt honored to be among such a caring and creative group of educators.

Cheryl McDonaldOur two-year association with the Frederick L. Hipp Foundation has been both rewarding and special. We’ve never been so proud to be teachers, and would not have traded these experiences—even those associated with Superstorm Sandy—for anything. We are convinced that the enthusiasm we have and the pride we feel has trickled down to our students, and the results have been amazing.

Cheryl McDonald teaches ninth-grade marine biology and directed field research at MAST, where she has worked for 31 years. She can be reached at

David Alfonse teaches computer-aided designes (CAD) to 10th graders as well as directed field research at MAST. Contact Alfonse, who has worked at MAST for 30 years, at