NORTH ADAMS — In the crowded, sunlit atrium of the Feigenbaum Center for Science and Innovation at MCLA, Owen Vareschi stood still, calm, focused.
The McCann Technical High School freshman was dressed in a gray hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans, his eyes focused ahead and downward, calculating his next move.
Using a black handheld video game-like controller, the staccato tapping of his fingers pumped directional codes over to a robotic rover.
Built by his robotics club teammates, the shoebox-sized machine sits atop a set of omnidirectional wheels that enable it to move back and forth as well as side to side across the floor.
As a group of students and public officials looked on, Vareschi quietly tested the rover's abilities to move a cardboard box, ramble over a curb and roll underneath another standing obstacle.
Vareschi said his exposure to Lego robots in elementary and middle school fueled his current interest to lend his expertise to his school's robotics team, the Mad Mechanics.
"I absolutely loved it," he said. "To get to build something and see it working is really awesome."
The robotics demonstration was among almost a dozen exhibits staged at a General Dynamics Engineering Expo held at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
On hand for the event was state Education Secretary James Peyser, who was there to talk about the state's inaugural STEM Week. Peyser said he hopes that schools and communities can create more opportunities to help students learn and apply STEM skills as Vareschi has.
The STEM Week campaign, devised by the Baker-Polito administration, was designed to showcase lessons and opportunities in science, technology, engineering and arts across the state.
During his remarks kicking off the MCLA program, Peyser said while one-time or even weeklong events are great stimulants for students, kids "don't often have the opportunity to follow up and go beyond the initial exposure."
Active across the commonwealth are regional councils that research and highlight the best practices in STEM education happening in their respective area schools and partner institutions. But the education secretary emphasized the necessity to "create meaningful pathways" with more structure and coursework to better prepare students to pursue STEM education from pre-kindergarten through Grade 12, and continue on to college majors and careers.
As STEM workforce vacancies persist statewide and student test scores still lag in these subjects, state officials are making the case for schools and communities to invest more time, expertise and funding into helping to close the gaps.
"STEM all by itself is going to create one million jobs between 2012 and 2022," Gov. Charlie Baker told the State House News Service on Thursday, expressing the hope for STEM Week to become a growing annual event.
The push for STEM education is prompted by real-time growth trends in the state and local workforce. There are a growing number of good-paying positions in fields like research, computer science, health and medical biology, and yes, even manufacturing.
According to research published by the Commonwealth Corporation, 600,000 people currently work in STEM-driven occupations in Massachusetts, making up 17 percent of the total workforce. Entry-level wages for STEM workers in Massachusetts are about $54,000 on average, compared to $27,190 for Massachusetts workers as a whole.
"We're in another hiring phase right now," said Brian Cull, senior manager for General Dynamics Mission Systems, who also spoke during Wednesday's program. He noted that his company has to have employees who can keep up with the changing technologies and contract demands of the U.S. Navy. "We have to keep our skills current."
But there's been an ongoing question of whether there are enough qualified candidates among local residents to meet the workforce demand of General Dynamics and other employers. Market research shows hiring lag upward of three months to fill vacancies for both entry-level and advanced STEM jobs.
So the state's rallying cry during STEM Week for kids to get interested and stay interested in these subjects comes from a place of urgency.
"If we don't seize opportunities [for students] now, then we'll set ourselves up for significant challenges in the future," Peyser said.
Under both the preceding Patrick-Murray and current Baker-Polito administrations, the state has steadily been making investments into STEM education infrastructure.
Prior to his MCLA stop on Wednesday, Peyser joined U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in speaking at a ribbon-cutting celebration for the new $4.55 million Center for Life Sciences at Holyoke Community College. According to a press release from the college, the new labs will be used primarily for biotechnology, genetics and microbiology classes.
It's been five years this month since MCLA cut the ribbon opening its own 65,000-square-foot Feigenbaum Center. Gina Puc, dean of enrollment management and community relations at the college, said that 23 percent of undergraduates are currently enrolled in STEM fields, with 43 percent of those students identifying as Berkshire County residents.
She said enrollment in STEM degree-seeking students is up about 4 percent since 2016, with 11 new health and science-related programs added to the college catalog since then.
But in terms of readiness, there's a significant gap between student interest and achievement.
"A lot of young people let go of science ... because we're not giving them enough opportunity," Peyser said.
The Spring 2018 science, technology and engineering (STE) results for area schools show a wide range in proficiency gaps for these fields. In some schools, more than 50 percent of students are still struggling to meet grade level math and science standards, with marginal progress being made over time.
North Adams Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Malkas said that her district is pushing to incorporate the arts into STEM acronym, creating "STEAM" to fuel students' ongoing interests and academic growth in these subjects. Strategies include using coding in music education, 3D printing through Fab Maker Studio and Project Lead the Way career education programs.
In a world where headlines currently call out issues of climate change, plastics pollution, health care staffing shortages, insurance gaps and lack of vaccinations, she said, "It really will be through STEM that our next generation will be solving these problems."