By Hiroko Sato
LOWELL -- With a few keystrokes on the control panel on an injection-molding machine inside UMass Lowell's plastics-manufacturing center on Wednesday, Jared Ide made a small semi-translucent medical cap roll out into the equipment's receptacle in an instant.
U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy took the cap in his hand and murmured: "It's still hot."
At the center, research teams make things just like factories do. Peter Landers, Ide's classmate in the plastics-engineering graduate program, told Kennedy that they put their computer simulation to the test there to see if it works in the real world.
That gives the kind of hands-on experience that most technology companies are looking for in prospective employees, said Julie Chen, vice provost of research at the university. Universities and colleges now also build their new research projects around manufacturers' needs -- an academic paradigm shift championed by UMass Lowell, said Christopher McCarroll, technical director at Raytheon.
"We want to be here with professors elbow to elbow," said McCarroll, who talks to UMass faculty members on a weekly basis about Raytheon's needs.
Kennedy said he wants to see the industry-academia collaboration across the Merrimack Valley region expand and become replicated across the U.S.
"The rest of the country has a lot to learn from all of you," Kennedy said.
Kennedy, a Democratic representative for the 4th Congressional District who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology, sat down with higher-education leaders from around the region on Wednesday as part of his "STEM tour." STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, the four disciplines that are in high demand for expertise in the labor market. Kennedy, who replaced retired Rep. Barney Frank in last November's election, is spending two days this week to meet with stakeholders in STEM education. Following visits to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UMass Lowell, Raytheon and Natick Soldier Systems Center on Wednesday, he is scheduled to tour Bristol Community College today.
After taking a tour of the $80 million Mark & Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center at UMass Lowell, Kennedy participated in a roundtable discussion with about two dozen educators and college leaders, including those who teach K-12.
State Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Greg Bialecki said STEM education is critical to Massachusetts, which has aimed to build "innovation economy." Those who are trained in STEM have the ability to move through the quickly changing labor market to land jobs, Bialecki said, adding that companies cannot find enough many workers with the right skill sets.
Companies are also looking for skills that can be put to use right away, said Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College. Because of that, the college created the Applied Science Associate Degree program designed to train lab technicians with practical work skills, Glenn said.
In order to grow such workforce, however, students must be exposed to and feel encouraged to study science and math from a young age, experts attending the event stressed. Roger Morneau, Science Department chairman for Lowell High School, said he leads an initiative to help students get on the right educational paths for their career goals. Fred Martin, professor of computer science and robotics at UMass Lowell -- who was involved in the development of Lego® Mindstorms years ago while at MIT, which are designed to inspire the innovative minds among teenagers -- said getting young children excited about STEM is crucial.
Kennedy recently introduced a bill to create regional institutes that would promote advanced manufacturing through partnerships among industries, universities and other institutions. He said there needs to be an ecosystem to promote STEM and related jobs.
After the event, Kennedy said he believes it's important for his office to help coordinate collaborative systems for different entities to work together. He said he wants to be responsive to different needs and have the good efforts he sees in the region replicated across the country.