Two Berkshire residents named to state STEM Advisory Council

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The Berkshires has a renewed stake in advancing STEM education across the state with two residents being named among the 29 delegates to the Massachusetts STEM Advisory Council.

Returning to his work with the council is Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School District Superintendent James J. Brosnan, who has been on the council since 2010 and has served on the council's executive committee.

Newly appointed to the 2017-18 advisory group by Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito is Matthew Keator, a partner with the Lenox-based wealth management firm, Keator Group LLC.

Also familiar with this region and serving on the council is Ellen Spear, president and CEO of Cape Cod's Heritage Museums & Gardens, and former president and CEO of the Berkshires' own Hancock Shaker Village.

While the STEM Advisory Council, created under state law, only meets on a semiannual basis, its members tend to continue to work with regional STEM Networks and other stakeholders throughout the year.

And with several new facilities and expanding programs relative to science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the Berkshires, there may be no better time to talk about strategic development and investment in STEM education in this county.

"It's a terrific organization that's connected to STEM careers and STEM markets," said Brosnan, who also has related these fields to his work with the Berkshire Compact for Education, Berkshire County Regional Employment Board, and the Berkshire Innovation Center, among other partnerships.

Keator said that while he hasn't been directly involved with STEM education initiatives in the past, he said he's eager to get acquainted with existing programs and new opportunities in both the academic and private sectors. Like Brosnan, he also wants to make sure the Berkshires' needs and assets are represented in Boston.

"I think the Berkshires have a unique position between the intersection of the arts and science and technology," Keator said. "I'm looking forward to highlighting any and all STEM opportunities going forward here. In particular, I'm anxious to learn from the Berkshire Innovation Center partners and what type of needs/educational training requirements they, along with other private sector partners, are looking for within their workforce."

"If you have young talent then you can bring in the businesses," Brosnan said.

But the challenge is in getting young people to see opportunities and advantages in developing STEM skills, from understanding the precision and diagnostic language involved in modern mechanics to the having the analytical skills required for biotechnology research.

Based on spring 2016 state testing scores, 78 percent of 10th-graders were performing at grade level or better in math, and 73 percent were where they should be in understanding principles of science, technology and engineering. Younger students, however, showed signs of struggle. Only the 47 percent of fifth-graders were performing at a proficient rate or better, while nearly 60 percent of eighth-graders fell below grade level in the science, technology and engineering fields.

Secretary of Education James Peyser, an ex officio council member, said that the council members "play a critical role in determining and advancing key initiatives focused on strengthening STEM education and helping to fill the skills gap in high-demand STEM careers."

The first meeting of the 2017-18 STEM Council Executive Committee took place on March 24, during which the following four areas of focus were identified: expanding work-based learning opportunities in STEM fields; developing and implementing early college career pathways; broadening access to high-quality computer science and engineering education, and strengthening and aligning the work of the commonwealth's four Regional STEM Networks.

The next meeting of the Berkshire/Pioneer Valley STEM Network, open to the public, will be held at 9 a.m. May 11, in room 106 of the Conte Federal Building in Pittsfield.

The two regions are working together under a $65,000 incentive grant to collaborate on addressing the above four goals. The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts hosts the network and manages the grant, and the regional network is required to file a year-end report by Aug. 15 on its progress and recommendations for the region to the state Department of Higher Education.

One way the Berkshires is working to engage students is by adopting the STEM Starter Academy model, which aims to provide a pathway for high school students to study a STEM discipline in college. At the state legislative level, the House has already proposed a $1.8 million investment in the STEM Starter Academy program statewide.

Between 2009 and 2014, the STEM Advisory Council has written two STEM plans, which are guiding documents for the council's work and how to advocate for STEM education across the state. The council can only make recommendations, and is not a legislating body.

The Governor's STEM Advisory Council will continue to update its plan every three years, with a summative report in planned for 2020.

Reach staff writer Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.

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