Education Secretary James Pyser told the group of educators and community leaders that state needs to grow its STEM pathways to ensure its economic future.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — There was gooey goo, lemon-powered lights, 3-D printing, a demonstration of the harmonics and robots — and more robots.
While it was all for the benefit of getting dozens of local schoolchildren excited about science, this event at MCLA's Feigenbaum Center for Science and Innovation was also hopefully laying the foundation for building the next generation of scientists and engineers.
And they will be essential for the state's future economy.
"There are about 600,000 STEM jobs in the state. There are currently something on the order of 270,000 vacancies in the STEM field in the state," said state Secretary of Education James Peyser. "If you look at the growth of occupations, the growth in the STEM field is projected to be probably 40 percent or more higher than the average of occupational growth around the state."
Massachusetts' economy relies heavily on jobs in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. About 17 percent of all jobs in the commonwealth are related to STEM — a third higher than the national average.
This week is STEM Week in Massachusetts, an effort by the Baker-Polito administration to raise the profile of STEM curriculum by encouraging schools to participate in planning lessons and activities that promote interest in science, engineering, math and technology.
Peyser said it was also about trying to connect the dots and for schools and school systems in partnerships with employers and their communities to create meaningful pathways for students to pursue their interests.
"The bottom line is STEM matters. It matters not just for the economy not just for employers but it matters for people ... to find the opportunities to fulfill their passions," he said. "We aren't rich with natural resources, we aren't going to make our way any other way than through the intellectual capital of our people."
The event at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts on Wednesday afternoon was done in conjunction with General Dynamics of Pittsfield and featured stations where children could learn about science and engineering using fun activities. Each child was given a card with the five stations that once checked off, gave them a signed "Future Engineer" certificate.
General Dynamics employees and MCLA students and faculty ran the stations and were joined by the robotics teams from Mount Greylock Regional School and McCann Technical School.
"The intent here is to teach some of our students about the different aspects of engineering," said General Dynamics Mission Systems Senior Manager Brian Cull. "Hopefully, they'll have some fun while we're doing it. ... Hopefully, build future engineers."
General Dynamics in Pittsfield has 1,400 employees, about a 1,000 of them engineers. Developing up-and-coming engineers is critical for the company. Cull says the GD has a good relationship with MCLA, which provides it interns who may follow along the engineering pathway.
"Our students have exposure to STEM activities that are extraordinary," college President James Birge said. He recalled when he had first come to MCLA two years ago, a student gave him a tour of the virtual reality lab and explained how it needed a $5,000 piece of equipment.
Birge found money in the budget for that and for more tools. The student, Dan, graduated and was selected above graduates from Stanford, MIT and Tufts for a position at Raytheon because, Birge said, the equipment he had learned on was the same.
Emily Maher, chair of the physics department, said she was sure she was going to be a writer until she took a physics course and realized physicists "look at nature, they explain it with math and they predict the future." She attended a liberal arts college to try other things but after three different majors made her way to back to physics, particle physics to be exact.
"When you find something interesting and challenging, work hard and chose it as a career," she said.
The STEM Pipelines in Berkshire County includes a Regional Science Resource Center with materials for K-12 educators; professional development through the Flying Cloud Institute; the Massachusetts Region 1 Science and Engineering Fairs held at MCLA; the Berkshire County STEM Career Fair hosted by Berkshire Community College; BCC's STEM Starter Academy; the Berkshire Bank STEM Academy for incoming MCLA students; and the annual Berkshire County Goes to College Day that brings third- and sixth-graders to local colleges.
Some of these initiatives are an outgrowth of the Berkshire Compact for Education, a collaborative program between schools, local colleges, businesses and community leaders. Peyser said such efforts can't necessarily be duplicated statewide but other programs that better fit each region can be encouraged.
"We need to create incentives for more collaboration, some of which we've been doing through the Skills Capital grant, which provides state funds for investment in equipment that's used in vocational schools and community colleges," Peyser said. "Part of that grant process is you need to show you're collaborating across these different sectors and providing an opportunity for fully utilizing [it]. There's little things like that we're able to do to encourage people to be more collaborative but I don't think they need a whole lot of prodding ... they recognize the need to do this for themselves and for their communities."
North Adams Public School Superintendent Barbara Malkas, a chemistry teacher, said an interdisciplinary approach will help children make connections that can be applied to real-world problems. The future generations will have to address major issues such as the planet's health, the use of technology and security, or developing vaccines for resistant viruses.
"These are major, big problems," she said. "But it really will be through STEM that the next generation will be solving those problems."
She said it had taken a bit for her to be convinced that the creative and innovative thinking of an arts education could be integrated into STEM. But she thought what about biochemists who have to think about the 3D shapes proteins or environmentalists considering changing foods.
"Scientists need to be creative and outside-of-the-box thinkers," Malkas said. "The collaboration with higher-education faculty and students has led to innovative thinking about science education and the infusion of science into arts education ... I support the idea we can make it STEAM .... we are ready to move full steam ahead."
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