THE BOSTON AREA has a thriving innovation economy and is home to numerous companies in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Yet, access to mutual learning opportunities with these booming industries remains limited for Boston’s educators and students. Today is the start of the annual Massachusetts STEM Week, a time to raise the visibility of these issues.

In 2015, United Way, the Boston Public Schools and Boston After School and Beyond launched BoSTEM, an initiative committed to connecting students to high quality, hands-on STEM programs and activities. The partnership was forged in recognition of the high proportion of STEM-related jobs in Massachusetts and the profound underrepresentation of Black and Latinx professionals in the STEM field.

BoSTEM works with after-school and out-of-school time (OST) providers and corporate partners to provide culturally sustaining, experiential learning opportunities to students, preparing them for postsecondary success and empowering them to see themselves in future STEM careers. Over 10,300 students have been engaged since the initiative began.

Statewide data from 2020 estimate that 27 percent of STEM workers are non-white, with those who identify as Black making up 5 percent of the Massachusetts STEM workforce, and those who identify as Hispanic or Latinx making up 6 percent of the STEM workforce. The overall state population is 9 percent Black and 12 percent Latinx.

The disproportion is not due to a lack of interest but a lack of opportunity for students of color. As more than 75 percent of Boston Public Schools students are Black or Latinx, it is imperative that students have access to engaging STEM education during the school day and in after-school and out-of-school time programs. This should happen in the elementary and middle grades so that students are prepared for more rigorous STEM coursework in high school.

BoSTEM aims to meet this need. It plays multiple roles within the local STEM ecosystem, serving as a community of practice and offering a hub for connections among industry partners, out-of-school time providers, and BPS educators. It also connects out-of-school time providers with professional development opportunities, resources to support the continued improvement of programs, and tools for data collection and analysis. Collectively BoSTEM fosters a supportive learning environment that guides students along STEM career pathways.

A new Rennie Center case study, “The BoSTEM Initiative: Creating Pathways to the STEM Workforce,” looks at the BoSTEM model, examines data, and highlights how three partner organizations (CitySprouts, Courageous Sailing and Sociedad Latina) provide robust, fun, engaging activities featuring culturally responsive, relevant material that incorporates real-world issues.

The report also provides key recommendations, calling for more concentrated involvement from the community at large, noting that with continued funding and expanded involvement from STEM-focused industries and community organizations, BoSTEM can continue to advance positive outcomes for young people.

Boston’s business community can play a significant role creating invaluable learning opportunities in two ways.

Externships allow educators to immerse themselves in multi-day professional development workshops delivered by industry partners. These programs provide teachers with content knowledge to bring back to the classroom and a deeper understanding of how their lessons can incorporate real-world scenarios. Industry partners can also learn from educators about youth and how best to connect with learners.

According to the Rennie Center’s report, the connection that BoSTEM facilitates allows industry partners seeking to recruit and retain a diverse talent pool the opportunity to learn from teachers how to make their workplaces more welcoming and inclusive for students of color.

Career exposure is an integral part of the BoSTEM model and important to contextualize learning for students. Due to historic discrimination, exclusion, and socioeconomic inequities, it is critical for students of color to see individuals that look like them succeeding in careers tied to their interests. The case study spotlights the many ways in which out-of-school time organizations intentionally seek out engagement with ethnically diverse STEM professionals.

The pandemic has presented multiple challenges for in-person career exposure activities, and we encourage companies to prioritize giving employees more volunteer time to directly engage with students and educators.

Relationships between educators, youth, and industry partners are most meaningful and beneficial when a reciprocal, long-term relationship is developed and sustained through site visits, field trips, and mentorship opportunities.

This year BPS and BoSTEM are hosting several STEM Week activities including, a kickoff event, 10 regional family nights, and a game night for teens at the Boston Public Library. The week culminates with a College, Career and STEM Fair to make students and families aware of the STEM career pathways available to them.

We urge industry partners and STEM professionals to sustain and build this framework by prioritizing real-world learning opportunities for students and professional development support for the educators who are cultivating the bright young minds of our future workforce.

Mary Skipper is superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. Bob Giannino is the Ansin President & CEO of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.