Creating STEM Education for Low Income Students

It is clear that the future of work in America (and globally) is quickly moving toward the more technical and scientific fields of study. As we shift to a world where we need more data scientists, computer software developers, engineers, and mathematical scientists - students from low-income neighborhoods are severely lacking in opportunities to vie for these careers.  

A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that STEM fields will expand faster than non-STEM jobs with STEM jobs growing almost 17% in 2018 as opposed to just under 10% for non-STEM jobs. With the lack of access to STEM careers students from low-income families are also prevented from accessing not only the industries with the highest growth, but also some of the highest paying jobs in the United States.   

At the root of the problem is the fact that from elementary through high school, students from low income neighborhoods attend schools that have limited resources to provide authentic, hands- on STEM education and exposure to advanced math and science courses. 

Finding Solutions

Fortunately there are many bright spots to be found across the educational landscape where many low-income, largely African-American and Hispanic students are indeed receiving the exposure necessary to prepare them to enter the jobs of the future. 

One such program is the Baltimore-based program STEM Achievement in Baltimore Elementary Schools (SABES). This innovative program is a collaboration between Baltimore City Public Schools and John Hopkins University. The program includes both school day and after school programming for approximately 1,600 students in grades 3-5. One of the critical aspects of this program is the culminating project. For this project students must identify a community problem and then apply their knowledge of STEM to devise a solution to that problem. Students then have the opportunity to present their projects during a showcase.Learn more about SABES here.  

Another program linking students who are normally underrepresented in STEM fields with a college or university is the First Star Academy - College of Staten Island.  First Star is a national organization that exclusively develops and runs college preparatory programs for high school youth in foster care through partnerships with colleges and universities throughout the country.  At First Star CSI in New York, students begin the program as a high school freshman and remain with the program through their senior year. The program’s current and first cohort have participated in culturally-relevant and age-appropriate STEM activities; the students both lead and participate in engaging STEM activities designed to encourage creative and collaborative thinking. The students gain an enhanced understanding of available opportunities in STEM, familiarity with interactive educational technology, an opportunity to be paired with an underrepresented mentor in STEM, and access to future career development opportunities. The Academy expanded this exposure by creating an opportunity for students to see STEM in action on college campuses during a week-long HBCU STEM college tour from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.

The issue of insufficient exposure to STEM education is ironically a problem even in Silicon Valley. Programs such as PEAK ( Pathways, Exposure, Academic Connection, Knowledge) are working to change that. Through the PEAK program students are able to visit and interact with employees of companies such as Google, Facebook, law firms and medical facilities. Additionally the high school students in the program participate in internships and job shadowing. In 2018, the great work of the PEAK program was recognized when the Santa Clara School Boards Association awarded the program the Glenn Hoffmann Exemplary Program award.

The LEAP University Academy Charter School in Camden, N.J is another one of those bright lights shining in the midst of violence, blight and poverty. Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago is the founder of the LEAP academy and she believes that if we can create a successful STEM education program in Camden, New Jersey than we can create it anywhere. The formula she has applied is hiring teachers who are actually in the industries they are going to teach, and paying them well to take on the task of teaching in one of America’s most troubled cities. Secondly, LEAP Academy has partnerships with Rutgers University to support the growth and development of its teachers, along with partnering with a medical school and hospital for students who may be interested in careers in the medical field. Lastly, the school aims to keep class sizes small to ensure teachers can focus and target their instruction. 

The Future

We have a long journey ahead of us that will require a tremendous amount of work, resources and creativity to move the needle from where it currently stands in regards to underrepresentation in STEM careers. Currently according to the Pew Research Center, African Americans and Hispanics make up 11% and 16% of the U.S. workforce respectively, but African Americans comprise only 7% of the STEM workforce while Hispanics only hold 6% of the  positions. Thanks to the work of programs such as SABES and schools like The LEAP Academy, and countless other schools and programs with similar goals, students from low- income neighborhoods who are generally underrepresented in STEM careers are now getting a chance to be a part of the future.

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