‘Classroom’ Programs Educate and Inspire

This is not your father’s — or your mother’s — field trip. Not by a long shot.

It might start and end the same way as that visit to Mystic Seaport or the Boston Science Museum back in the ’60s or ’70s did — with a bus ride — but that may be the only thing a day spent as a participant in programs staged by The World Is Our Classroom has in common with those stops from a generation ago.

The WIOC program, now in its sixth year, places a classroom, as well as a working laboratory, in a company, and in so doing, it opens students’ eyes to much more than an exhibit on dinosaurs or a whaling vessel. It provides learning-while-doing lessons in science and technology, while also exposing young people to the world of work and possible career opportunities.

Thus, they present win-win-win (we need a lot of ‘wins’ here) scenarios for this region’s business community and individual companies. In short, this is a unique and special program that we can hope can be expanded to include students in more area communities, especially those with lower-income populations that need exposure to career opportunities and perhaps some inspiration to aspire to such careers.

Overall, WIOC shows that the business community can play a key role in strengthening our region’s cities and towns by helping to educate young people and, in the process, create a larger, better workforce.

The World Is Our Classroom was created in large part out of need. United Water, which manages water- and wastewater-treatment systems across the country, was mandated to provide some form of educational community outreach as a condition of a 20-year, $263 million contract it was awarded in 2000 to manage the Springfield Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility at Bondi’s Island.

The company’s answer was to go beyond the ‘adopt-a-high-school’ strategy it had taken elsewhere, and instead implement a program that would take thousands of young people through the plant each year, providing valuable lessons carefully designed to help with performance on the MCAS exams along the way.

Taking a good idea and making it even better, the company created a nonprofit group, The World Is Our Classroom, to expand on the concept and take it to more companies and communities. In recent years, Hazen Paper Company in Holyoke and Mestek Inc. in Westfield have signed on as participating companies.

Each business, working in concert with WIOC instructors and officials at area colleges, including Springfield College, Holyoke Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College, has crafted its own ‘curriculum’ to engage and educate young people and then test them on what they’ve learned.

The lessons come in many forms and on a number of levels, touching on everything from simple machinery to natural processes like evaporation to the value of teamwork in problem-solving and reaching shared goals. The programs are designed mostly for fifth-graders, but some are tailored for high-school students.

Both constituencies learn about much more than why and how wastewater is treated at Bondi’s. They also learn about the world of work and gain exposure to job opportunities they might not have thought existed here — opportunities in manufacturing, but also in management, engineering, design, and quality control.

These are important lessons to impart at a time when companies in many sectors are struggling to find enough qualified talent and when the so-called brain drain has reached the status of a serious economic-development challenge.

A trip to Hazen and an exercise in making paper is not going to change a young person’s life. It’s also not going to solve that company’s workforce issues for the year 2020. But it will get a child thinking — about the planet and about possibilities.

These are good things that we hope can inspire this region’s business community to step up and do things that can make a difference — things like putting a classroom in a company.

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