Boston’s STEM community assesses progress, pursues vision for the future

Thursday, July 18 – Today representatives from Boston’s youth development organizations, corporations, STEM-rich institutions, research partners, and the Boston Public Schools gathered to share successes and assess the progress of the BoSTEM initiative, as well as set the vision for the coming year.  Launched by Boston After School & Beyond and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley in 2012, BoSTEM is a citywide initiative that aims to ensure every middle grade student in Boston Public Schools (BPS) has access to high quality learning experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Sharing in Student Successes

Leaders from BoSTEM’s nonprofit partners first shared stories from the past school year, grounding the convening in the hands-on STEM learning experiences that students engaged in throughout the community.  Courageous Sailing shared how their new STEMSail program brought students from two Charlestown middle schools together, and while a sense of community didn’t exist in the beginning, by the end of the program they were a group bonded by shared experiences.

Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Science Fair Mentors Program shared the culminating successes of their Timilty Middle School students at the annual Science Fair with their mentors.  They emphasized the dramatic growth of students who participated in the program over multiple years, highlighting Edward as a withdrawn student who was not at all interested in science at the beginning of 7th grade.  He turned around by the 8th grade, and was determined to work on a rigorous project with the support of his mentor, Alex.  Edward proudly completed his project, and will be working at MGH this summer in the Materials Management Department.

East Boston Social Centers (EBSC) described how middle graders from the McKay K-8 School engaged in hands-on chemistry experiments to learn about elements of the periodic table. One activity that particularly peaked students’ scientific inquiry was The Black Box, a mystery box which served as a metaphor for how science is conducted.  The students’ faces lit up as they created and tested their hypotheses about the reactions of The Black Box based on different treatments, resulting in an engaging experience that sparked students’ interest in chemistry.

Why BoSTEM?

The BoSTEM community then engaged in a discussion around “Why BoSTEM” and reviewed data findings from the past school year.  Lisa Gomi Hui, Boston Beyond’s Director of Measurement & Improvement, first painted a picture of why this diverse group of stakeholders commits to collecting data and convening to assess the progress of BoSTEM’s collaborative work.  She stated that research tells us student interest in math and science is cut in half between 4th and 8th grade.  But 8th grade is a pivotal point at which young people are launching their high school careers and choosing courses that will dictate their trajectory beyond high school.  If they lack interest in STEM when making these choices, it is likely these students will not put themselves on pathways to future STEM careers.

Interest isn’t our only challenge here in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council states the “single greatest challenge” for the tech industry in Massachusetts is the “lack of a skilled workforce” in an industry that makes up about a third of the jobs in the state.  Further, over 90% of individuals who hold STEM jobs in Massachusetts are White or Asian; just 3% are black and another 3% Latino. The vast majority of Boston students are students of color, but based on the percentages of those currently in STEM careers, students of color are pursuing STEM careers at much lower rates than their white counterparts.

BoSTEM aims to keep Boston students engaged in STEM activities through the pivotal 6th-8th grade range, so that they are more likely to pursue STEM-focused classes in high school and equip themselves with the knowledge and skills needed to fill the STEM workforce gap in Massachusetts.  Using culturally responsive, high quality curricula and taking a citywide approach to measurement and professional development, BoSTEM is a unique opportunity for entities across Boston’s STEM field to collaborate to solve this complex issue and create a more diverse pipeline of future STEM professionals.

Debriefing the Data

In order to assess BoSTEM’s progress in addressing this challenge, data and continuous improvement play a critical role in the coalition’s work.  At the convening Boston Beyond was pleased to share encouraging progress from the 2018-2019 school year.  Results from the Common Instrument – a tool developed by the PEAR Institute which is designed to gauge STEM Engagement, Career Interest, and Career Knowledge – showed that while students’ STEM engagement and STEM Career Interest remained high and around benchmark, students in BoSTEM reported they knew more about STEM jobs by the end of the school year (demonstrating statistically significant growth in this area).  And when diving deeper into the data, increases were found across multiple factors of this dimension – more students reported they knew more about STEM jobs, more said they knew where to find information about STEM jobs, more students stated they knew what steps they had to take to get a STEM job, and more reported knowing of companies that hire people to work in STEM jobs.

BoSTEM partners also celebrated statistically significant growth in students who want a STEM job in the future, with an increase from 41% of students to 56% of students.  These results were most exciting because Career Knowledge has historically been BoSTEM’s weakest area, and the
only score not near to benchmark.

The BoSTEM community then reviewed progress in STEM facilitation, as evaluated by the Dimensions of Success observation (DoS), another tool developed by the PEAR Institute.  The DoS assesses a program based on 1) Features of the Learning Environment 2) Activity Engagement 3) STEM Knowledge & Practices, and 4) Youth Development in STEM.  Programs in BoSTEM exceled at the dimensions related to the Learning Environment, and received above benchmark scores on the dimensions related to Activity Engagement, specifically Participation, Purposeful Activities, and Engagement with STEM.

The data also suggests that sites are making improvements in the nature of activities provided to students, with the goal of engaging students in hands-on learning that leads to their taking agency over their STEM learning experiences.  For example, in the Inquiry dimension of the DoS, in the spring 80% of BoSTEM sites scored 3+ out of 4, which is mainly related to many more programs engaging in activities that encouraged STEM practices like designing to solve problems, testing and experimenting, developing models, diagnosing or deducing potential causes to problems.  There was also a significant increase in programs who scored highly in Youth Voice, highlighting the fact that many more programs provided opportunities for students to design their own project and make meaningful choices related to the outcome.

Collectively, these results might suggest that the use of data to drive continuous improvement, professional development sessions (tailored to specific areas of improvement like youth voice and relevance), and deeper integration of the corporate community into students’ STEM experiences have had a positive impact on STEM facilitation and student engagement and interest, leading the BoSTEM community to feel energized for the future of the initiative.

What’s Next?

The convening then split participants into two parallel sessions – the BoSTEM Community of Practice, comprised of program practitioners, and the BoSTEM Advisory Council, comprised of representatives from STEM corporations, researchers, nonprofit and community leaders.

Program leaders in the Community of Practice brainstormed the values, behaviors, competencies, and experiences of the “ideal STEM educator,” and discussed how to best support BoSTEM’s educators to reach this state.  They drafted recommendations for professional development offerings in the 2019-2020 school year, around workshop structure, content, and themes.  Insightful recommendations included suggestions for pedagogy and facilitation – including hands-on training, explaining keystones in pedagogy, and enabling programs to bring their own curricula/lesson plans to make professional development offerings particularly relevant to their specific programs.

Program leaders then made “pitches” around new ideas for BoSTEM, or approaches that would work particularly well for their program.  Themes that emerged included training on explicit cultural competency embedded in every STEM PD, continued access to the Dimensions of Success observer certification training so that educators can become experts on high quality STEM programming, and stronger alignment of Boston Beyond and BPS PD offerings.

Meanwhile members of the Advisory Council, including representatives from Boston Society of Architects, Cabot Corporation, the PEAR Institute, Janey Construction, National Society of Black Engineers, The Boston Foundation, and more, focused on the important question, “How can BoSTEM support our varied institutions to improve access to meaningful STEM experiences for students?”  By engaging in a design-thinking exercise, the Council strategized around “what we do,” “what we wish,” and “what we need” for the future.  Themes that emerged from small working groups included:

  • Engaging program alumni as mentors for new and/or younger students; training them to coach and help other students develop a love for STEM.
  • The importance of regularly convening thought leaders and community leaders around the topic of STEM interest and engagement.
  • Family engagement is an old but new idea, and the BoSTEM community has an opportunity to find innovative ways to incorporate families into everyone’s work.

These themes prompted discussions around ways that these varied institutions can work more in concert in the future, and more deeply engage across sectors to achieve meaningful STEM experiences for all middle grade Boston students in the future.

Learn more about BoSTEM.