by Jesse Arsenault, student at UMass-Amherst (2018)
Sitting slightly off the main stretch of Route 9 in Hadley is an all-brick low-rise building, its front lined with large square windows. Above one of its multiple entrances is a sign announcing the presence of its latest occupant: the Pioneer Valley Coral and Natural Sciences Institute. This organization, a project of the nearby Springfield Institute, is setting out with an ambitious two-fold aim: to provide coral for wholesale and as research materials to marine scientists in the area, while also establishing a space where young learners can get real hands-on laboratory experience.
Dr. Ljiljana Rajiç, the chief science officer at the Springfield Institute, sees the coral facility as an important first step toward improving diversity and opportunities in STEM education. The idea for the program was jointly developed between herself and Roderick Anderson, the executive director of the Springfield Institute. Rajiç emphasizes the fact that the current approach to scientific research is often shaped by our own cultural context. “In my country [Serbia], there is not a lot of knowledge about environmental chemistry and engineering,” she says, explaining that this is a major driving factor in her current work as an environmental chemist at Northeastern University.
Rajiç argues that increasing diversity in science education, especially at the pre-college level, is crucial for guiding future research. “Science suffers because of [a lack of diversity], because there are no different perspectives that can bring innovation.” She points out that many extracurricular activities at the high school level and below focus on sports and the arts, but very few give young students a look into how science is actually practiced in the real world. This, in turn, may drive many students away from pursuing a career in science – especially if they are not planning on attending college.
The coral institute, which is set to open within the year, will consist of a dual-function space that fuses its coral growing capacities with student-focused labs. The coral farm will also be a partial funding source for the institute through wholesale, acting as a unique resource for local industrial and academic researchers to obtain the materials they need. In the meantime, the institute is forming partnerships with the Holyoke public school system, among others, to provide new and instructive opportunities for STEM education among local students.
Rajiç is optimistic about the program’s future and its potential for fostering STEM diversity. Noting that the coral institute will also be headed by a woman of color, she remarks that, “It’s a one-of-a-kind institute in the region, which is, for us, a very exciting endeavor.” And as to the organization’s future goals for the project? “Long-term we would like to expand, of course, and have a bigger facility. But this is where we will start for now.”