Massachusetts Life Science Center awards McCann Tech $29,164 for STEM programs

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NORTH ADAMS — After an initial public announcement by the governor's office in February, grant recipients of the Massachusetts Life Science Center's Competitive Capital Program gathered at Chicopee Comprehensive High School to celebrate and share their investments on Thursday morning.

This marks the third time the Charles H. McCann Technical School has applied for and received funding through the program, under the leadership of Science Department chair Erin Mucci. This year, McCann is the only recipient from Berkshire County out of the nine Competitive Capital and STEM Equipment Awards received by Western Massachusetts institutions.

More than $1.1 million in capital grant funding for workforce development and science, technology, engineering and mathematics education projects was awarded in Western Massachusetts, with McCann earning $29,164, up from the $26,251.04 the vocational technical school was given in 2013. Mucci said the initial grant provided nearly $100,000, which led to a significant upgrade of biotechnology equipment in the school's science labs.

While McCann is well-known for its trade shops and vocational training programs, Principal Justin Kratz said a lesser known fact is that all students are required to take four years of lab science courses, while the state high school guidelines only require three years.

"Our students thrive in science lab," said Mucci.

"Sciences are a huge part of what we do," Kratz confirmed.

Asked why, Mucci said, "Science — that's where the careers are in Massachusetts. In the Northeast, there are so many skilled careers available and no one to fill them. If kids are exposed to science, and it's hands-on science, that's where we can hope to spark their interest and inspire them."

Former Gov. Deval Patrick signed the $1 billion life sciences bill on June 16, 2008, which established the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center to invest the funds in areas that would help expand the life sciences industry in the commonwealth over the subsequent decade.

Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration are tasked with managing the program through its final years.

"These capital grants from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center deepen our administration's efforts to build vibrant regions, from Cape Ann to the Berkshires," said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito in a statement released Thursday.

"Our ongoing efforts to deliver a high-quality STEM education to middle and high school students, and our focus on delivering impactful workforce training opportunities at our public colleges and other institutions of higher education, will allow Massachusetts residents to access quality careers in growing fields, including robotics, advanced manufacturing, healthcare, and biotechnology," Baker said.

The McCann Science Department is doing its best to help prepare students to seamlessly transition into those latter career fields while it continues to integrate the state's Science and Technology/Engineering Standards adopted last April.

Mucci said the new Massachusetts Life Science Center funds have been invested in the purchase of equipment to expand McCann's robotics and programming courses, a program she co-supervises with information technology teacher Perry Burdick.

"We use robots to learn to code, so that's what we've used the bulk of this grant for," said Mucci. The robotics systems are used in both classes and the school's robotics club.

Other science equipment purchased under the Life Science Center program has enabled students to do gel electrophoresis labs with DNA, RNA and proteins; take and analyze cultures of cell and bacteria samples; do ultraviolet visualizations; take light measurements with a spectrophotometer; and learn to use a micropipettor, a standard biotechnology tool.

While this year marks the first year the Massachusetts Life Science Center STEM equipment grants are being paired with resources to support teacher training for new equipment, the McCann staff last summer, through a Williams College Olmsted Award, attended a two-week Advanced Placement computer science training at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Outside of the grants, McCann added AP Physics and AP Statistics courses to its curricular menu to entice and educate students in advanced STEM practices.

Both Mucci and Kratz said the Life Science Center grants are helpful in supporting their work, "It certainly makes our teachers more effective when they have all the latest equipment, especially with the next generation science standards pushing kids to know more. You can cover material through a book but, especially with science, there's no substitute for actually being able to do the lab," said Kratz.

Life Sciences Center President and CEO Travis McCready said the center is "excited to play a role in supporting economic growth and workforce preparedness in Western Massachusetts."

But a look at the agency's fiscal 2016 report shows that for other schools and organizations in the Berkshires, the support is limited. So it will be up to teachers and schools and other agencies to help fill the gaps.

"We look for anything we can find," said Mucci, "but there aren't a lot of programs out there."


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