'You see the eyes get wider': MCLA welcomes 3rd-graders to check out what college is like

Brayton Elementary School third-graders Alexa Bombardier, 8, Caleb Woodward, 9, and J.J. Prenguber, 8, check out the television studio with Peter Gentile at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts during a visit of third-graders from Berkshire County Schools.

NORTH ADAMS — A Colegrove Park Elementary School third-grader took a peek into the microscope at the brain cells of a mammal.

His eyes widened.

"That's like my brains? " he said. He stepped back and put his hands on both sides of his face. "Wow. That's weird."

At the next microscope station, a little girl took a look at a cross section of moss. Her eyes narrowed.

"Whoa," she said softly. "That's pretty."

These were just two of more than 200 third-graders from schools in North County that paid a visit to MCLA last week for the 10th annual "Third Grade Goes to College" event organized by the Berkshire Compact for Education.

The effort to expose youngsters to the college experience and to engage their curiosity in a variety of activities began in 2007 with Greylock Elementary School. The effort caught on and has been growing ever since, according to Sue Doucette, program coordinator for the Berkshire Compact for Education, organizer of the event.

The students were bused in from Brayton, Sullivan and Greylock elementary schools in North Adams, Hoosac Valley Elementary School in Adams and Clarksburg Elementary School. They participated in hands-on presentations with MCLA faculty, staff and students.

The experiences take them from the microscopic universe, through earthbound curiosities and on to the outer edge of the galaxy.

Aside from the microscope adventures, the students experienced a planetarium presentation inside the StarLab inflatable dome, a visit to a television studio, a fake crime scene with the campus police, a stop in Venable Theatre to chat about theater arts, a session on sports medicine in the training room, and discussion with a panel of MCLA students.

"It's a really powerful message for them," said Joshua Mendel, senior associate director of admission for MCLA. "They're learning that college is not a scary place. It breaks down the barriers and lets them become familiar with the environment."

After Tuesday's experience, the students gathered in the Campus Center gym to eat lunch and talk about their day. While students ate their bag lunches, Doucette asked how many think they will go to college. They all raised their hands.

She asked if anyone knows what they want to be when they grow up.

A tide of young voices piped up.

Among the careers called out were police officer, doctor, artist, museum director and zookeeper.

"When they come here and see bigger picture type things, it all starts to make connections for them," Mendel said. "You see the eyes get wider. Different things spark interest in different kids. And that's exactly what we want them to do — take it all in and realize college is attainable."

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6301.