Creating Pathways to the STEM Workforce

Massachusetts has developed a reputation for being a hub of innovation in science, technology, engineering, and math. Fields such as health care and technology are booming here. Yet compared with the general population, the people who fill these roles are disproportionately White. As the number of high-paying careers in STEM increases in the Commonwealth—the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between 2018 and 2028, one out of every three jobs created in Massachusetts will be in STEM fields—people of color remain underrepresented in STEM. Statewide data from 2020 estimates that “27% of STEM workers are non-white” with those who identify as Black making up 5% of the Massachusetts STEM workforce and those who identify as Hispanic or Latino making up 6% of the STEM workforce, compared with the overall state population of 9% and 12.4%, respectively. There are increasing opportunities to work in this growing, lucrative industry. But for whom?

The disproportional underrepresentation of Black and Latino individuals in the STEM workforce is not due to a lack of capability or an inherent lack of interest in these fields. For example, The Education Trust analyzed the results of a survey completed by students in 80 school districts across 24 states, finding that “[o]n average, roughly 2 in 5 (or 40%) of the Black and Latino students in our sample...aspire to go to college and name STEM subjects as their favorites."  But when it comes to feeling as though they belong in STEM studies, a study of 184 schools reported that only 24% of Latino students and 13% of Black students felt as though they belonged in AP STEM classes while 45% of White counterparts reported the same sense of belonging. The underrepresentation of individuals with marginalized identities in STEM fields feeds into students’ individual perceptions, making them feel like they don’t belong on that path and reducing the appeal of STEM careers. Overall, even though many students with marginalized identities have an intrinsic interest in and capacity for STEM coursework, there is a systemic shortage of support, representation, and resources to help cultivate that interest so it doesn't wane over time.

Diversifying STEM pathways is also imperative for employers, as “research shows that workplace diversity drives innovation, workplace culture, and productivity and that the companies with more racial and gender diversity outperform companies with less diversity.” Massachusetts needs a diverse STEM workforce to continue expanding in the STEM sphere and to maintain its position as a hub for STEM industries. Ensuring greater access to high-paying STEM jobs for individuals of color will also help close gaping racial wealth gaps and sustain a strong economy within the Commonwealth. To realize these benefits, industry partners must develop trusting relationships with the communities in which they are located and invest in diverse, homegrown talent early and often. 

The critical work necessary to undo the exclusion of Black and Latino people from the STEM space starts well before individuals enter the workforce. High school is a period where students can lean in and access higher-level STEM content through advanced and enrichment courses, but even high school is too late to build a foundation for rigorous STEM engagement. It is through sparking and cultivating a STEM interest in the elementary and middle grades that students, particularly marginalized students, build the knowledge base, confidence, and desire to explore a STEM-based path in high school and beyond. Research shows that “early interest in math and science is a key indicator of whether students pursue STEM pathways later,” so providing young students with access to engaging STEM content increases the likelihood that they will seek out advanced STEM courses in high school and continue those studies into college.

The out-of-school-time (OST) space is in a unique position to provide creative and enriching STEM educational experiences for middle school students, connecting school-day learning with students' lives outside of school. Out-of-school-time STEM programming has the benefit of incorporating a flexible curriculum that introduces students to concepts they may not learn in school. They can also experience positive social and emotional development through trusted relationships with friends and role models, ensuring that programs are safe spaces for cultivating new interests. 

Evidence supports the theory that when OST organizations offer programs that incorporate STEM and social-emotional skill-building, positive youth development, and STEM career exposure to middle school students, students will feel more secure in their STEM educational pursuits throughout their academic career and will be more likely to explore STEM careers. A 12-year-old participating in an after-school program may seem poles apart from a 22-year-old seeking a full-time job, but research shows that middle school activities are in fact deeply interconnected with the career choices of adults.

So how can communities provide middle school students with out-of-school-time STEM opportunities? Our latest case study, The BoSTEM Initiative: Creating Pathways to the STEM Workforce, looks at how one initiative in Boston is doing just that. The BoSTEM initiative—which originated in 2015 from a partnership between United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley and Boston After School & Beyond—has established an ecosystem that supports high-quality STEM education and college/career readiness in grades 6-8. Through collaboration with various OST programs, Boston Public Schools (BPS) educators, and STEM industry partners in the area, BoSTEM aims “to encourage innovative, customized site-based strategies and supports within a framework for quality implementation,” promoting the use of “culturally responsive STEM programming” to encourage students’ STEM aspirations. 

Among its wide array of measurement and improvement activities, BoSTEM connects programs with professional development and communities of practice to enhance collaboration across the OST STEM field. It also offers externship learning experiences for BPS teachers looking to bring lessons from local STEM partners back to the classroom, and access for STEM industry partners to the local, homegrown talent that the initiative is developing. BoSTEM’s intricate ecosystem supports programming and connections between school-day, out-of-school, and post-secondary stakeholders, resulting in positive outcomes for all involved, but most importantly for students—BoSTEM reports “increased student interest in STEM and STEM-related careers, increased student attendance and social-emotional skills, improved student STEM achievement, [and] improved STEM learning opportunities” from their model. 

Our case study examines BoSTEM’s approach and results in detail, highlighting how the initiative has impacted students, educators, OST staff, and the broader OST field. By examining data on BoSTEM’s outcomes from existing sources and through conversations with stakeholders, the report tells the story of BoSTEM’s progress over the past few years, its potential for continued impact, and how it can be used as a replicable model and uniting framework for stakeholders in other regions.

When communities invest in young people’s out-of-school education as a necessary complement to their school-day learning, students will be able to more fully form the identities, skills, and interests that help them succeed in their academic journey and beyond.