GCC Introduces High School Students to STEM Careers

September 8, 2017

  • What’s it take to be an engineer?
  • How do you create the algorithms used by social media?
  • What jobs are available in renewable energy?
  • Is there more to biology than what is taught in high school?

These are just a few of the questions explored by 43 students at Greenfield Community College’s STEM Starter Academy this summer. Each student chose a free eight week-long intensive STEM-based summer course (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), received intensive advising, tutoring and career support, and participated in special STEM-focused activities. Greenfield Community College’s STEM Starter Academy is part of a statewide initiative to promote STEM fields. The program is for students new to STEM (including high school students graduating in 2017 or 2018) who are interested in attending GCC.  Summer 2017 participants, who ranged in age from 14 to 26, received college credit for the course they attended and some students received high school credit. Students from across Franklin County and some of Hampshire County participated in the 2017 STEM Starter Academy, including students from Turners Falls High School, Mohawk Regional School, Greenfield High School, Pioneer Regional School, Franklin County Tech School, Frontier Regional School, and Smith Vocational School.

Alysha Putnam, GCC’s STEM Special Programs Coordinator, said, “This is an opportunity for those who are not sure if they are interested in STEM to explore without making a major financial commitment. This makes STEM more accessible and broadens the potential of those entering STEM fields. The STEM Starter Academy also gives students who know they are interested in a STEM field a head start. Most STEM fields require a bit of schooling, so to knock out some of the initial course work gives these students an advantage in their educational timeline. And, this is free college credit for students. College can be costly. High school students, in particular, do not have access to financial aid through FAFSA, so they have to pay out of pocket. For many families, this is not always feasible. This program makes STEM education more accessible to a broader group of individuals. Additionally, students who participated in GCC’s STEM Starter Academy are given priority when applying for GCC STEM scholarships like the E2S5 (https://www.gcc.mass.edu/science/scholarships/).”

GCC’s Dean of Science, Math, and Nursing praised the program saying, “The STEM Starter Academy is about more than academic fields, it is about relationships. The Academy helped the students build relationships with the College, with each other, and with fields within science, technology, engineering, and math. The ongoing activities throughout the year helped create a STEM community and all of the supports such a community offers.”

STEM community events through the year include collaboration with the GCC Science Club, Math studio support, STEM Starter Academy participant enrichment activities such as career exploration through speakers and field trips, and a visit to the University of Massachusetts. Additional activities in the coming academic year may include a Science Art Show of photography by GCC STEM students, STEM speakers, and a STEM career panel.

GCC’s STEM Starter Academy is funded by the MA Department of Higher Education and will be held again in the summer of 2018. Their overall student success model is:

  • Increased student awareness of and access to STEM programs of study and career opportunities
  • Enhanced student readiness for and recruiting into STEM pathway programs
  • Improved student retention based on academic success and overcoming “life barriers”
  • Increased completion through award of certificate or degrees and pathways to STEM jobs or transfer to higher level STEM academic programs.


The STEM courses available to the students included: Natural History, Biology I – Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology, Introduction to Engineering, Science, Technology, and Society, Numerical Computing for Engineers and Scientists using Mathematica, Energy Conservation and Efficiency, Cosmic Life Becomes You: Scientific Literacy for Today, Introductory Algebra, Intermediate Algebra, College Algebra, and Precalculus.

A series of workshops such as Time Management Skill Building, Test Taking Skill Building, Resume Building, Career Exploration in STEM, Self Care: Stress management, Data Communication: Scientific Literacy and Communication ran through the summer to provide personal and academic support. The STEM Presentations available to the Academy students included:

  • STEM Alumni Discussion Panel: A group of GCC alumni who are currently in a STEM career field came back and presented on their experience as students (both at GCC and beyond) and their current career fields.
  • Brian Adams Seminar: Brian Adams is a GCC Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science. He also is an author of fiction who has published two novels. He spoke to the students about climate change and his blend of science and fictional writing.
  • Internship/REU Student presentation: GCC alumna (’17) Cassandra Smith returned to speak about her summer REU (research experience for undergraduates) through the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where she studied phenotypic plasticity in the field of neurobiology. Two current GCC students Lois Hawkey and Megan Balmos presented on their ecological research on vernal pools in Northfield MA. This was an opportunity for students to see what types of research experiences they have access to both on and off the GCC campus.

Other STEM-related activities included:

  • GCC Science Club activity: Students engineered structures around eggs with recycled materials from campus to then drop off the side of the GCC building. Working with the Science Club members, students gained interpersonal confidence, built relationships with current GCC students, and had fun tossing eggs!
  • UMASS Amherst trip: Students were brought to UMASS Amherst for a comprehensive tour. Many GCC students transfer to UMASS, so introducing the large school to students early on is important in terms of building transfer confidence. We toured the UMASS campus, had lunch in the dining commons, and then were allowed access to several science labs (chemistry, biochem, plant chemistry, bio/neurobio) where students were able to talk with faculty, get involved in some hands on lab activities, and experience what STEM is like beyond the GCC walls.
  • Community service day: Students participated in a GCC community service period. For two hours, students worked outside in the outdoor learning lab. This experience was a way for students to spend some time outside in nature with hands in the dirt, while having a learning experience facilitated by GCC Staff member Tony Reiber. Tony, who manages the outdoor learning lab and teaches Plant and Soil science, has an educational background in wetland conservation and plant and soil science. This experience for the students highlights that even during an activity like community service, learning can always occur and science is intertwined in just about every facet of life.

For information about GCC’s STEM Starter Academy, visit: https://www.gcc.mass.edu/stemacademy/

By Mary McClintock, ‘82

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