Mario Umana Academy Receives Grant to Expand STEM Program

By John Lynds

Mayor Martin Walsh and Superintendent Tommy Chang check out a BosSTEM classroom at the Mario Umana Academy last Thursday. Walsh announced a grant to expand STEM learning citywide.

When the Mario Umana Academy originally opened it did so as the Umana/Barnes School of Math and Science. At the time, there was talk of including the school as one of Boston’s ‘exam schools’ but the community fought to keep the school a community school for East Boston students. The school was built at the time with what was considered state-of-the-art science labs and an emphasis on math and science.

However, the school hit a couple of rough patches in the 1980s and 1990s, but after renaming the school as the Mario Umana Academy students, there’s a return to increasing science, technology and math opportunities for students who have dreams of one day entering those fields.

Last Thursday, Mayor Martin Walsh was joined by Superintendent Tommy Chang as well as leaders of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, Boston After School & Beyond to announce a $3.9 million grant to expand STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) after-school programming for up to 10,000 students in Grades 6-8 who are typically under represented in STEM learning and careers.

The United States Department of Education awarded the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley with a five-year, $3.9 million grant. The grant is part of the Department of Education’s Education, Innovation and Research program to fuel the expansion of BoSTEM at the Umana and other schools citywide.

At the event, Walsh and Chang saw first hand how STEM is already working in the classroom at the Umana by engaging students in a wide array of science and technology activities. Walsh and Chang toured the Umana’s STEM classrooms and found students having fun as they worked on science experiments with teachers.

“In Boston Public Schools, we’re preparing our students for the careers of the future,” said Walsh. “Some of the jobs our young people will have in five or 10 years haven’t even been invented yet, but we can make sure students have the tools and resources they need to succeed. Programs like these are so important to ensuring BPS provides a 21st century education for all, and I thank our partners for making this possible.”

Launched in 2015, BoSTEM has become a proven collaboration between schools and community partners dedicated to engaging all Grade 6-8 BPS students in STEM learning opportunities to help ensure they succeed in 21st century careers.

According to Chang, the five-year, $3.9 million grant at the Umana and other schools aims to increase student interest in STEM and STEM-related careers, as well as refine, scale and evaluate BoSTEM as a best practice for quality STEM education and college/career readiness. The goals of BoSTEM include reaching 10,000 Grade 6-8 students over the next five years. Chang added that BPS also wants to increase STEM interest and achievement by improving social and emotional competency and well-being. This would include aligning curriculum and instruction across school and out-of-school time and providing hands-on, experiential learning opportunities with STEM industry professionals.

“BoSTEM’s hands-on approach keeps students engaged in the skills that will build relevance to today’s innovation economy and the increasingly technological world around them,” said Chang. “As the Boston Public Schools work to narrow opportunity and achievement gaps, BoSTEM ensures that students from all backgrounds are getting important hands-on learning in STEM.”

Students in BoSTEM will learn from a curriculum that is aligned with lessons both during and after school. This includes an online STEM curriculum, titled “Defined STEM,” which all schools serving Grades 6-8 and BoSTEM programs will have access to over the next five years.

“This significant investment from the U.S. Department of Education will help advance our goal of ensuring all students graduate high school ready for college and career,” said President and Chief Executive Officer at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley Michael Durkin,. “Not all students have equal access to the hands-on learning that gives students the chance to apply math and science skills in exciting, real world contexts. BoSTEM brings together educators, industry and corporate partners, volunteers, government, and community-based organizations to prepare all of today’s middle school students in Boston for the workforce opportunities of tomorrow.”

Research shows when students view math or science favorably, their academic achievement in those subjects is higher, which further encourages them to pursue potential STEM careers. Yet the number of Boston eighth graders who report their favorite subject is math or science is one-half the rate reported by fourth graders. For many students, eighth grade is also the year when they begin to make course selections for high school that will chart their future career path.

Students currently participating in BoSTEM are overwhelmingly qualified as high-need students or economically disadvantaged. In addition, 92 percent of the participating students are African American or Latino, who are under-represented in STEM education and careers.Change the Equation, a national organization dedicated to strengthening STEM education, recently released a report and found the percentage of minorities in STEM careers remains virtually unchanged since 2001. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, African Americans and Latinos make up 48 percent of the overall U.S. workforce yet they only fill 24 percent of STEM jobs.

“These additional funds will allow community-based organizations like Sociedad Latina to better prepare students who remain underrepresented in the STEM field,” said Alexandra Oliver-Davila, Boston School Committee member and Executive Director of Sociedad Latina at last week’s event. “Through this partnership we will be able to provide these hands-on learning experiences that not only pique the interests of English Language Learners and Latino students, but also provide them with STEM opportunities that make them feel empowered and see themselves as agents of change in their communities.”

United Way will contribute $1 million over five years, and has raised additional funds in partnership with IBM, Linde Family Foundation, JetBlue, and the Mass Biotech Council.

“Young people spend 80 percent of their waking hours outside of school, and this grant recognizes the importance of after-school programs in preparing students for future success,” said Chris Smith, Executive Director of Boston After School & Beyond. “By connecting the classroom to the community, BoSTEM will expose thousands of Boston middle schoolers to new experiences, relationships, and future career paths.”

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