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Opinion | Karyn Polito, Joseph P. Kennedy II, and Jeffrey Leiden

We need to train more women and minority students for careers in STEM

Students in middle school and older are invited to learn about robotics and STEM-related careers at MassRobotics.Zinkevych/Fotolia

Despite an abundance of jobs in science, technology, engineering and math, just 1 in 6 high school seniors nationwide is interested in studying STEM in college. For Massachusetts — which has the most technology jobs per capita in the country — this creates both economic and societal challenges.

As industries like biotech, clean energy, information technology, and advanced manufacturing continue to grow at a rapid pace in the Commonwealth, there is too much untapped potential in our classrooms, particularly among young women and underrepresented minority students.

Although women account for about 47 percent of the workforce in the United States, they hold only 25 percent of computer and mathematical occupations, and just 15 percent of engineering jobs, according to the US Department of Commerce.


As a state, we have made progress over the last decade, with more women and minorities pursuing degrees in STEM subjects. In 2007, just 57 female students and 14 black and Latino students took an AP Computer Science exam in Massachusetts. Ten years later, those numbers grew to 744 and 565, respectively. We still have a long way to go.

National research shows girls routinely face bias in math classes that impedes their ability to learn, and few women earn advanced degrees in STEM fields. The number of STEM degrees awarded to women of color is even smaller. In 2014-2015, black women earned 2.9 percent, Latinas 3.6 percent, and Asian women 4.8 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields nationwide, according to Catalyst.

These statistics need to change quickly. The diversity of STEM jobs should be reflected by the people who fill them. All students need more opportunities to explore STEM subjects so their interest is sparked at an early age — not just to open doors to promising careers, but to respond to the accelerating demands of our economy.


To change the current landscape, leaders in education, businesses, and government must work together.

As cochairs of the state’s STEM Advisory Council, the three of us collaborate across party lines and between the public and private sectors to find ways to strengthen students’ foundational skills in STEM through grants to improve and expand STEM course offerings, upgrade capital equipment, and train teachers. We work to develop and expand career and college pathways for young people to pursue industry-recognized credentials. And we deepen partnerships with employers and institutions of higher education to offer more work-based learning experiences in STEM fields.

But there is more to do.

We need more businesses to offer internships and apprenticeships in STEM fields, particularly for young women and minority students. Our quasi-public entities, such as the Mass Life Sciences Center and Mass Clean Energy Center, can help by increasing diversity within internship programs in the life sciences and clean energy sectors.

Knowing that first-generation college-goers and minority students who have the chance to study in college courses before they graduate high school are more likely to pursue a college-degree, more of our schools need to offer rigorous college-level courses in STEM subjects through advanced placement classes and early college programs.

We also need to do a better job of helping students see themselves in STEM fields by learning these subjects from a more diverse population of teachers whom we actively recruit and train.


We need to strengthen career planning and coaching in urban middle and high schools and expand career pathways and vocational technical programs, ensuring more students have work-based learning experiences. Training students for the jobs of tomorrow must begin with urgency in our classrooms today.

From Oct. 22 to 26, during the inaugural statewide STEM Week, schools, colleges, businesses, and museums will promote the importance of studying STEM through hands-on learning projects, events, and career expos. Hundreds of employers — like Vertex Pharmaceuticals — have partnered with local school districts to showcase STEM careers to students. We hope to encourage all young people — of all genders, races, and zip codes — to open themselves up to the opportunities STEM studies could bring to their futures, and the future of the Commonwealth.

Karyn Polito is lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III represents Massachusetts’ fourth congressional district. Dr. Jeffrey Leiden is chairman, president, and CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals.