Higher ed commissioner visits Greenfield Community College for STEM Week

Noe Ortega, the state’s higher education commissioner, checks out spicebush in Greenfield Community College’s Outdoor Learning Lab during a visit to cap off STEM Week on Thursday.

Noe Ortega, the state’s higher education commissioner, checks out spicebush in Greenfield Community College’s Outdoor Learning Lab during a visit to cap off STEM Week on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Anthony Reiber, left, who teaches science at Greenfield Community College, talks with Noe Ortega, the state’s higher education commissioner, over some radicchio in GCC’s Outdoor Learning Lab during Ortega’s visit capping off STEM Week on Thursday.

Anthony Reiber, left, who teaches science at Greenfield Community College, talks with Noe Ortega, the state’s higher education commissioner, over some radicchio in GCC’s Outdoor Learning Lab during Ortega’s visit capping off STEM Week on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Noe Ortega, left, the state’s higher education commissioner, gets a tour of Greenfield Community College’s Outdoor Learning Lab from Anthony Reiber, who teaches science at the school, on Thursday. Ortega visited the campus to cap off STEM Week on Thursday.

Noe Ortega, left, the state’s higher education commissioner, gets a tour of Greenfield Community College’s Outdoor Learning Lab from Anthony Reiber, who teaches science at the school, on Thursday. Ortega visited the campus to cap off STEM Week on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Noe Ortega, the state’s higher education commissioner, and Greenfield Community College science student Cyd Roy-Clark look for salamanders under coverboards during Ortega’s visit to the campus to cap off STEM Week on Thursday.

Noe Ortega, the state’s higher education commissioner, and Greenfield Community College science student Cyd Roy-Clark look for salamanders under coverboards during Ortega’s visit to the campus to cap off STEM Week on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Noe Ortega, the state’s higher education commissioner, and Greenfield Community College science student Cyd Roy-Clark bag a salamander they found under a coverboard during Ortega’s visit to cap off STEM Week on Thursday.

Noe Ortega, the state’s higher education commissioner, and Greenfield Community College science student Cyd Roy-Clark bag a salamander they found under a coverboard during Ortega’s visit to cap off STEM Week on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 10-19-2023 6:13 PM

GREENFIELD — The state’s higher education commissioner paid a visit to Greenfield Community College on Thursday for a tour of the school’s Outdoor Learning Lab, allowing him to see the kind of hands-on STEM projects that are funded by a grant from his office.

Noe Ortega stopped by after visiting Westfield State University earlier in the day, and greeted students and faculty at the “Dish with the Commish Mixer” before his tour to learn about STEM-based projects GCC students are engaged in thanks to a STEM Starter Academy (SSA) grant. This visit capped off GCC’s STEM Week, part of a statewide effort to boost students’ interest, awareness and ability in science, technology, engineering and math.

“When you think about what STEM does for rebuilding … the careers and professions of the commonwealth, [it’s] extremely important,” Ortega said in the woods after bagging a salamander for science students to study later. “But also, when I’m here and I do something like this, this is an area where social impact is such a big deal.”

Anthony Reiber, who teaches science at GCC, gave Ortega a tour of the Outdoor Learning Lab, which includes botanical and permaculture gardens, a micro-orchard and a wildflower meadow he helps his students maintain. Reiber showed Ortega the vegetables his students are growing as well as some grapes and raspberries.

“GCC wine?” Ortega asked to a round of laughter.

Biology Professor Amanda Hyde and some of her students led Ortega into the woods to dig for salamanders under square coverboards, as the amphibians spend the vast majority of their lives in soil because they prefer a cool, moist habitat. She explained red-backed salamanders have no lungs and breathe through their skin, meaning gloves must be worn because food bits and dirt can cause respiratory issues for them.

Earlier in the week, GCC celebrated STEM week with more salamander sleuthing as well as assembling and launching bottle rockets and learning the science behind cotton candy. There was also an anatomy-themed trivia contest on Thursday before Ortega arrived, and a STEM internship panel on Wednesday night, allowing students to see what sorts of internship opportunities exist in the field.

“STEM Week has been amazing. It was completely planned, organized and led by students,” said Deidre Murphy, GCC’s senior special programs coordinator for the SSA grant. “There was a STEM Week Committee of 10 students who received stipend money from the grant … to plan and execute the entire week. This is the seventh event of STEM Week in the last four days. And they planned all of the events in under a month.

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“I’m really excited that [Ortega’s] here,” she continued. “I think he really gets the idea that GCC is about student enthusiasm for what students are doing [and] students kind of owning this place.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.