Takeaway from BCC STEM Career Fair: Gender stereotypes made to be broken

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PITTSFIELD — Men can be good nurses, women can be good engineers and the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics offer good career opportunities for people of all genders interested, enthusiastic and curious to explore them.

These were the key messages of the 11th Berkshire STEM Career Fair for county high school students Friday morning at Berkshire Community College.

"Passion is an essential ingredient for success in your life and your career," said Jill Sasso Curtis, BCC's dean for community engagement, education and workforce development, while addressing nearly 200 visiting Berkshire County high school students.

She said she did some research and tallied about 227 STEM careers currently in practice around the world.

"They really offer a world of opportunity," Sasso Curtis said.

Friday's fair offered 36 presenters from the region, in trades ranging from health care and medicine to paper manufacturing, robotics and engineering, among others. Each student was given a "passport" and the challenge to visit with at least 10 representatives during their hourlong exploration through the fair.

Among the people students might have met is "Wild" Bill Knowles, a developer and manufacturer for Pittsfield's Cavallero Plastics. He has presented at every fair, and sits on vocational education advisory boards for Pittsfield Public Schools because he firmly believes "We need to keep people in our area and keep them interested in our industries."

Once, after being asked by a client about a device to guide a video inspection system through smaller pipes, Knowles was at a loss, until hours later, when the idea struck him at 2 a.m.

"I got up and wrote it down and drew this," he told students, holding up a sketch of a prototype. "This product is now used in more than 80 countries," he said.

When asked about his education, Knowles acknowledged that he only took a few college-level courses, but he encourages students to got to college and work in the field to gain as much experience as possible.

Meanwhile, Drury High School students Angelique Price, Natasha Bohl, Mackenzie McGuire and Taylor Sprague were surprised and intrigued by the work BCC Respiratory Care Department students were doing in their studies. The college students shared a hands-on lab involving pigs' lungs and respiratory care mannequins, which students got to explore with gloved hands.

"A lot of us don't know what's out there," Price said, "but this is really good to help us figure it out."

Students touring the event said the fair helps them not only see the local STEM career opportunities, but also who's working in the fields.

Taconic High School seniors Brittny DeWitt and Alyvia Asta felt inspired by learning about the Women in Science initiative of Flying Cloud Institute in New Marlborough. They're the only women in their automotive shop classes.

"This keeps us open-minded," Asta said.

"I think we need more women in these jobs, because it shows more how all women can do men's jobs," DeWitt said.

Gender stereotypes were addressed during keynote addresses given by Danica Chin, a process engineer for high-tech polymer manufacturer Covestro, based in Sheffield, and Richard Berry, a registered nurse and education specialist for Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. Both hold roles in fields historically dominated by employees of the gender opposite their own.

"As a man, we may do some of the heavy lifting or deal with combative patients, but when it comes to our patients, they don't care if you're a man or a woman; they just want to be cared for," said Berry, who took up his career after completing his work in the military.

For Chin, her studies and work required her to disprove to her male counterparts that she was less educated or skilled than them.

"I out-programmed a lot the guys in my computer science classes, and kept pushing and studying," she said.

"I don't mind being elbow deep in grease and dirt and helping like everyone else," Chin said. "I don't like breaking nails, but if I have to, I will."

The day seemed to have a transformative effect for some people.

Hoosac Valley High School junior John Krol went into the fair thinking he wanted to do a pre-dental studies program, but left considering the field of civil engineering after talking with Massachusetts Department of Transportation project manager Nathan Boerman, and his colleague, Raymond Panetta.

"I had only just thought of the idea of civil engineering, but talking with Nate really broadened my horizons on the topic," he said.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6239.


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