BRATTLEBORO — Everyone has learned a lot over the past nine months or so about the real heroes in our community — teachers, medical professionals, care givers, grocery baggers, and mask and meal makers, to mention just a few.
What’s more, there are lots of unrecognized heroes in the community, people who go about their work, maybe not even realizing that they, too are heroes.
“The kids we trained 10 and 15 years ago, these are the people who have carried us through a pandemic,” said Nancy Weiss, director of the Windham Regional Career Center, which offers its STEM Academy with two “strands,” engineering and biomedical studies. “We are helping individuals do very honorable work.”
Anne Doran, WRCC’s career advisor, said people working in manufacturing facilities across the United States have responded boldly to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Designers and fabricators are working with those on the front lines, finding a faster way to provide personal protective equipment, designing a more efficient respirator or writing a contact tracing app for mobile phones.
“It’s a much more integrated world than we ever thought,” said Doran.
Michele Hood, who leads the Department of Science at Brattleboro Union High School and who teaches in the biomedical strand at the WRCC, said the students that come to her classes are ready to adapt and work hard in a rapidly changing landscape.
“For many of our students, it’s about an integration, an understanding of how materials, electronics, technology, human health and welfare and wellness interact,” she said.
The STEM academy is an opportunity for students to explore their interests, said Dan Braden, STEM coordinator at Brattleboro Union High School.
“With STEM, it’s about broadening their world,” said “Teenagers are all about curiosity and expansion of the world.”
Braden describes the process as a cross-pollination of ideas and subjects that gives the students a sense of the immense possibilities waiting for them.
“Engineering is sometimes defined as applied problem solving,” he said. “Some people view that as bridges and buildings, but those principles can be applied to just about anything. There is an endless array of things we can look at, from architecture, to engineering to research at Keene State College with stem cells.”
The programs at WRCC are meant to encourage a teenager’s natural curiosity while building their confidence by providing some real, hands-on training, skills they will need if they move into the manufacturing world.
“Most people are creative, they just don’t see themselves that way,” said Doran. “They don’t see problem solving as a creative act.”
“We want them to have a real spark of creativity and see this can be fun,” said Richard Thompson, engineering instructor at the Career Center. “What they do after that ... whether going into engineering or becoming a machinist, a blacksmith, for all I know. Or in the arts.”
In order to meet that natural inquisitiveness, instructors and counselors have to often step back, really listen to the students and put aside their traditional roles.
“It really does flip over the understanding of the relationship between teachers and students,” said Tom Yahn, dual enrollment coordinator, where a teacher has to be more responsive to the students. “”It requires them to think about how can I bring what I know to this to widen their perspective about what they told me they care about.”
Hood said the students are encouraged to be creative, to work with each other and collaborate with counselors and teachers to envision a wider application of the terms engineering and biomedicine, asking them to think more broadly about how technology and health care can interface.
“Everyone agrees that learning anchored in the real world is a good thing,” said Hood. “The Career Center offers these great opportunities to weave an experience over time, not to just see who they will be, but also to see how they are becoming that.”
So while a student might be taking a class in medical intervention or in nursing, they might also be thinking about how technology or manufacturing can benefit both the patient and the care provider.
Engineering students can take a class in human growth and development to help them understand how a product’s design, whether that’s a medical device or a home for a disabled person, affects a person’s health.
“We start with the question: ‘What challenge or problem do you want to solve?’” said Doran. “We want them to see the connection between their interests and values and a broader career.”
The courses can also be designed to help students hit the ground running when they graduate, whether that’s right into a well-paying job in manufacturing or in the biomedical field, or on the way to college.
“Our program is preparing students for the many challenges that engineers and technicians have to tackle now that manufacturing and product development have become an essential component of the local and national economy,” said Doran.
The biomedical field is not only about direct patient care, said Hood, what many students and families might think about when they hear that term. “They don’t want to be a nurse or a doctor or an X-ray technician. But that understanding of what medicine is can be limiting.”
Hood said the Career Center’s biomedical and engineering programs were built by Career Center staff and faculty who are always watching the industries, how things are evolving and adapting, so that the WRCC can continue to provide an education tailored to a student’s interests while providing the promise of a job in the real world.
For many people straight out of high school, assembly jobs can be an entry point into a career, said Doran. And people who come to a job place with skills learned at the Career Center, she said, can advance quickly. Many times, she said, an employer will pay for more professional training for someone who comes with a basic set of skills.
Thompson said there is a huge need in local manufacturing for trained and skilled machinists. He said the manufacturing world has changed over the years, too.
“It’s no longer a dirty job,” said Thompson. “It’s a lot more high-tech, they’re working in a cleaner environment and they’re not in front of a machine all day.”
Yahn said the Career Center empowers students by reminding them every career has dignity and value. He also believes empowering students to make their own learning choices is essential to creating citizens who are engaged, both in their communities and on a larger scale.
“At the Career Center, everything they want to be is really important,” said Yahn.
Working with River Valley Community College and the Community College System of New Hampshire, the career center also offers Advanced Manufacturing through the Running Start program.
“The Running Start program provides affordable college courses to high school students that are transferable to other colleges throughout the United States,” said Jerry Appel, coordinator of high school programs. “The goal of the Running Start program is to ease the college transition process by offering affordable courses taught in a familiar environment. This is particularly true for first generation college students for whom a college pathway has not traditionally been presented as a viable option.”
And while many students leave for work or further education, many prefer to stay local, in jobs that pay well enough or better to start families.
Doran said good local jobs keep a community young and strong by retaining the younger generation.
The academies are dual enrollment, meaning the students can get college level credits. In the STEM Academy, they also have to earn credits in science, chemistry, physics, and math from the high school and they have to create a portfolio for presentation during their senior year.