UMass Boston

Diversifying STEM Is a Challenge. NASA Gave a UMass Boston Program $1.2M to Help Solve It.

10/14/2021| Gray Milkowski

Despite a broad consensus in the STEM field that having more people of color in the workforce leads to better outcomes and solutions, building authentic diversity in the industry remains a challenge.

Student in a UMass Boston classroom.
Image By: John Gillooly

“ You simply make better and more robust solutions when you include more perspectives, experiences, and expertise. ”

One of the most commonly cited reasons for the gap is that the pipeline of young people, students, and emerging professionals in science, technology, and math does not reflect the diversity that the field is striving for, and for those who do pursue the career track, they often are missing the support to make it through. 

Recognizing this, a program at UMass Boston is working to make headway on the diversity problem in STEM, and NASA recently awarded it $1.2 million in funding to support their effort. 

The program is PATHS, or Partners Aligned to Heighten Broad Participation in STEM, and is an initiative led by the School for the Environment that is focused on increasing the pathways to a successful career in the industry for people of color in Massachusetts. The program spans its support from the moment a child’s interest in engineering is sparked, to the path to college, and all the way through to working professionals and their companies. 

“The world's problems are complex now - they’re really complicated,” said Bob Chen, interim dean and professor at the School for the Environment, and a leader of the PATHS project. “They affect a lot of stakeholders, and in science, you simply make better and more robust solutions when you include more perspectives, experiences, and expertise.”

PATHS begins its support of scientists long before they start thinking about college through trying to give young students authentic experiences that pique their interest. By funding such engagement opportunities, the spark that ignites in a handful of young students has the potential to drive a lifetime in STEM. 

“Watching TV, meeting an astronaut, going to a museum – young people can get into a STEM related career from a thousand different experiences,” Chen said. “We can enhance the existing authentic experiences and reach a more diverse audience by just infusing a little bit of money.”

For students who are in the college process, the funding from NASA will help PATHS remove common barriers to college and support students through the complexities of academics in college. 

"We train students to get through admissions, we’ll help prepare them to succeed in traditionally troublesome subjects like calculus in college, and give them pointers on how to write a better application or prepare for a more successful interview," said Chen. 

Finally, PATHS has built a coalition of private sector companies in STEM, each of whom have committed to working with the program to boost diversity within their own walls and across Massachusetts. iRobot, Hack.Diversity, the Museum of Science, and the Christie Mcauliffe Center have already signed on in addition to dozens of other partners across the Commonwealth.

It’s a network of partners that is unique in that they are committed to measuring collective diversity in the field, rather than individual metrics. Chen is hopeful that the model will create meaningful progress in STEM diversity. 

"These partners have engaged with us with the plan to tell us what programs they are already running, and PATHS will attempt to enhance them by sharing resources and effective practices, advertising across our diverse network, and sponsoring workshops that will share really good, successful strategies that have worked [to diversify engineering].” said Chen.