The STEM job market is hot. Do we have the workforce to sustain it?

The BoSTEM initiative aims to get more middle school students excited about STEM learning opportunities.

STEM (science, technology, education and math) industries are among the fastest-growing sectors of our local economy. Close to half of the job postings in the Boston area require STEM skills, regardless of the type of company posting them. That’s great news, right? Yet over two-thirds of Massachusetts employers report difficulty in finding employees with the right skills.

Tim Connelly is Executive Director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, whose mission in part is to focus on developing a workforce that will keep Massachusetts competitive. Connelly notes that Massachusetts recently ranked #1 in several innovation and science indexes by organizations like Bloomberg and the Milken Institute.

Tim Connelly speaks at the STEM Leadership Breakfast

“When we think about the state of STEM in Massachusetts, we have much to celebrate,” Connelly says. “It is imperative that we build the pipeline for our future workforce to sustain and grow that momentum. To stay on top, we must continue to foster the growth and development of more talented STEM workers. And we must support educational programs that are addressing critical skills gaps, providing all students with opportunities to learn.”

But local education experts say that we cannot afford to wait until young people are in college, or even high school, to start cultivating their interest in STEM-related positions and careers.

Are we already falling behind?

Boston faces a challenge when it comes to middle school students’ interest and achievement in STEM subjects: only 13% of Boston Public School 8th graders score proficient or higher on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) standardized test.

What’s more, research shows when students view math or science favorably, their academic achievement in those subjects are higher, which further encourages them to pursue those subjects as potential careers. Yet the number of Boston eighth graders that report their favorite subject is math or science is HALF the rate reported by our fourth graders. For many students, 8th grade is also the year when they begin to make course selections for high school that will chart their future career path.

“By reaching students in middle school, we feel that we are getting them at just the right time,” says Rahn Dorsey, Chief of Education for the City of Boston. That’s why United Way and Boston AfterSchool and Beyond created BoSTEM, in partnership with Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Boston Public Schools. BoSTEM’s goal is to ensure that by 2020, all 10,000 BPS middle school students receive high quality STEM learning experiences in diverse environments that complement their traditional classroom experiences.

“We need to leverage all of the tremendous assets our City has to offer – schools, businesses, nonprofits and civic institutions – to help us reach this goal,” says Dorsey. “Out-of-school-time programs are uniquely positioned to help get middle school students excited about STEM learning and STEM fields. They offer a strong focus on positive youth development and a variety of hands-on learning opportunities in settings that schools alone cannot provide.”

Yet according to a 2014 report by the Boston STEM Network, only 6.4% of Boston middle school students have access to these out-of-school time STEM opportunities.

making the grade

Over the past year, BoSTEM has grown from six to 11 program sites, which partner with 26 Boston Public Schools and collectively have reached over 1,200 students. Program partners include City Sprouts, Sociedad Latina, Thompson Island Outward Board and Education Center, Community Boat Building, DotHouse Health, Lena Park Community Development and MGH Center for Community Health.

City Sprouts partners with public schools in Boston and Cambridge to grow community gardens that double as outdoor classrooms for fun, hands-on learning. Their middle school program provides an opportunity for young people ages 10-14 to learn firsthand about the natural ecology of their local environment. It not only seeks to increase student knowledge of nutrition and healthy food choices, but also to deepen their interest in STEM through gardening.

Joshua Rivera, who is currently a 10th-grader at Madison Park Vocational Tech in Mission Hill, enrolled in Sociedad Latina’s STEAM Team program as a seventh grader. Recently honored as United Way’s STEM Youth Leader of the Year, Joshua credits the STEAM Team’s blend of robotics, architecture and gardening that opened his mind to the many ways STEM is a part of everyday life. That realization, along with a newfound confidence in skills he never knew he had, put him on a path toward a career in web design.

Boston STEM

STEM Youth Leader of the Year Joshua Rivera with Mike Durkin and Rahn Dorsey

the Report card

These programs are working. Evaluations show that 71% of BoSTEM students report a growth in STEM Career awareness and feel they are being equipped with the 21st Century skills needed to succeed any industry such as critical thinking, perseverance and quality relationships with peers and adults. Over 70% report greater interest in STEM overall.

Corporate partners and volunteers are also critical to this success. They are the mentors who provide the opportunities to excite students about STEM learning and help them to see themselves as business leaders and future employees.

From hosting field trips, to participating as a career panel speaker to serving as a consulting group on a specific project, corporate volunteers possess the expertise and connections to inspire a new generation of STEM leaders. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership that will support employee engagement and retention, and strengthen our city, and our region, for years to come.

“In science, the elements can only do so much on their own,” says Michael K. Durkin, President at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “Schools can’t do it alone. Businesses can’t do it alone. Community organizations can’t do it alone. Volunteers can’t do it alone. But when combined, it is a formula for a successful future. When combined, things really start to happen.”