The Future of STEM in Greater Boston and What You Need to Know

“El Salvador!” “Colombia!” “Argentina!”  These are just a few of the countries that students shout out to Mayor Marty Walsh as he asks a group of sixth through eighth graders at the Mario Umana Academy in East Boston where their families originate. The Mayor and these students, together with United Way and other city leaders, are celebrating a new $4 million grant to bring more exciting, hands-on STEM learning activities to their school. But in reality, they are celebrating so much more—the opportunity to be prepared for careers in STEM and fulfill the workforce needs of the region’s STEM industries.

Supply and STEM Demands

Today, nearly half of all new jobs in the Greater Boston area require STEM skills, yet more than two-thirds of Massachusetts employers report difficulty in finding employees with the right skills.

The Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress predicts that within the next decade, our nation will need one million more STEM professionals than it can produce.  

At the same time, according to Change the Equation, a national organization dedicated to strengthening STEM education, the percentage of minority employees in STEM careers remains virtually unchanged since 2001. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, African Americans and Latinos make up 48% of the overall U.S. workforce, yet they fill only 24% of STEM jobs.

The City of Boston was a natural partner for United Way and Boston After School & Beyond to launch the innovative BoSTEM initiative. Boston Public Schools provide a perfect opportunity to develop future STEM workers, particularly among African-American and Latino students, who are underrepresented in STEM education and careers, and help meet the workforce needs of the STEM economy.

Massachusetts also faces the worst income gap in the country, particularly among the Latino community. This makes the work of BoSTEM, which is preparing all students for the jobs of tomorrow, even more critical: students currently participating in BoSTEM are overwhelmingly qualified as high-need students or economically disadvantaged. In addition, 92% of the participating students are African American or Latino.

“We all benefit from this investment,” said Phyllis Barajas, Founder and CEO of Conexión, Inc.

“Latinos, as the second largest demographic in the country and growing here in the metro Boston area are going to have to shoulder the responsibility for providing a well-prepared workforce, for their benefit and the benefit of us all

“There is a war for talent every day,” said Jeffrey Leiden, Chairman, President and CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which was recently honored as United Way’s inaugural Corporate STEM Partner of the Year. “To win that war, we have to educate our young people. Education is the single most important and powerful force to address our region’s social and economic issues.”

Adds Corey Thomas, Chief Executive at Rapid 7, “We need to do more than just check the box at schools.  ‘A’s’ are not the goal – the goal is whether you learn.”

You don’t have to be a genius

The State of Science Index, a new study by 3M, found that “more than one-third of people are intimidated by science, with 36 percent agreeing only geniuses can have a career in science.”

BoSTEM seeks to both drive substantial increases in student interest in STEM and STEM-related careers in the City of Boston; and prove the impact of hands-on learning by tracking student achievement in math and science year over year.

“Not all students have equal access to the hands-on learning that gives students the chance to apply math and science skills in exciting, real-world contexts,” said Michael K. Durkin, President and CEO at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “BoSTEM brings together educators, industry and corporate partners, volunteers, government, and community-based organizations to prepare all of today’s middle school students in Boston for the workforce opportunities of tomorrow.”

The initiative focuses intentionally on middle school. That’s because the number of Boston eighth graders who report their favorite subject is math or science is one-half the rate reported by fourth graders. However, research shows that when students view math or science favorably, their academic achievement in those subjects is higher, which further encourages them to pursue potential STEM careers. For many students, eighth grade is also the year when they begin to make course selections for high school that will chart their future career path.

“BoSTEM’s hands-on approach keeps students engaged in the skills that will build relevance to today’s innovation economy and the increasingly technological world around them,” said BPS Superintendent Dr. Tommy Chang. “As the Boston Public Schools works to narrow opportunity and achievement gaps, BoSTEM ensures that students from all backgrounds are getting important hands-on learning in STEM.”

BoSTEM also intentionally brings together after-school programs and schools to enrich the hands-on nature of the programming and provide opportunities outside of school hours to foster more creativity, curiosity and critical thinking.

“Young people spend 80 percent of their waking hours outside of school, and this grant recognizes the importance of after-school programs in preparing students for future success,” said Chris Smith, Executive Director of Boston After School & Beyond. “By connecting the classroom to the community, BoSTEM will expose thousands of Boston middle schoolers to new experiences, relationships, and future career paths.”

BoSTEM program sites will receive $1.4 million over five years for grade 6-8 STEM programming, and the number of sites will expand from eight to 12 over the course of this grant. Current BoSTEM program providers include: Breakthrough Greater Boston, Citizen Schools, CitySprouts, Community Boat Building, Latino STEM Alliance, Massachusetts General Hospital, Sociedad Latina, and Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center.

The programs engage students through a variety of activities. At Community Boat Building, students work in small teams to construct and launch traditional wooden rowboats and explore marine science along the Fort Point Channel. Through CitySprouts, youth learn about science and nutrition through a combination of gardening and cooking. Latino STEM Alliance offers robotics both during the school day and in after school hours.

“These additional funds will allow community-based organizations like Sociedad Latina to better prepare students who remain underrepresented in the STEM field,” said Alexandra Oliver-Davila, Boston School Committee member and Executive Director of Sociedad Latina. “Through this partnership we will be able to provide these hands-on learning experiences that not only pique the interests of English Language Learners and Latino students, but also provide them with STEM opportunities that make them feel empowered and see themselves as agents of change in their communities.”

More than one gap to mind

In addition to addressing gaps in diversity in STEM industries, the gender gap is another area where educators and STEM leaders remain focused. According to 3M’s State of the Science Index, “more work needs to be done to address the gender gap in science,” with women reporting they are less engaged with and interested  in science than men.

Increasing STEM interest among girls is another focus among after-school programs in the region that are supported by United Way: Girls Inc. of Lynn, for example, operates Eureka, an intensive six-week full day summer program where girls participate in classes where they explore science and math through hands-on activities and group projects.

“We know from research that women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields,” said Deborah Ansoulian, Executive Director at Girls Inc of Lynn. “Through hands-on activities, girls explore, ask questions, persist and solve problems. By interacting with women and men pursuing STEM careers, girls come to view these careers as exciting and realist options for themselves. Access to meaningful STEM opportunities for interested girls in underserved communities is critical in helping girls overcome income inequality and helping to meet the workforce needs of tomorrow.”