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Combining Efforts: Tackling the STEM Education Problem in Underserved Philadelphia

March 23, 2017

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”  Benjamin Franklin

Students in underserved Philadelphia communities lack access to educational opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). The young minds of our children are ready, but are we building the environment to provide them the right resources? 

Evidence reveals a veritable black-hole of STEM access in urban environments, displaying a clear pattern impacting predominantly impoverished neighborhoods hardest.

Among Pennsylvania students, the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap in math and science is stark. In 2015, minority students in eighth grade scored on average 30 points lower than their white peers on the state math exam, representing a 12-year low. Similarly, urban students in grades four and eight scored on average 30 points lower than suburban students on the state math exam. This problem disproportionately affects underserved communities lacking access to funding and resources for STEM education. The households in these underserved communities often have limited access to necessary academic resources and many only have one parent in the home.

STEM teachers in urban communities, especially those that reflect the ethnicity of the student, are limited. Lacking minority educators as role models, students of color may be less likely to pursue STEM fields, perpetuating a shortage of STEM educators. Of 8th grade Black and Hispanic students proficient in math, 60% decide in high school that they are no longer interested, leaving only 40% to pursue STEM majors in college. In Philadelphia, inner-city students’ SAT scores averaged 300 to 400 points below their suburban peers, placing these students at a significant disadvantage as they look forward to college.

The outcome has impacts reaching far beyond Philadelphia. As a result of these systemic STEM education trends, the STEM workforce is no more diverse now than in 2001. More disconcerting is the fact that growth in the STEM professional field is masked by increasing gains by Caucasian and Asian professionals, predominantly men. The growth in STEM degrees among minorities has been nearly non-existent since 2001, at just above 6% of all degree earners, according to National Science Foundation data.

In Philadelphia, there are several entities that are working hard to mitigate the decline in STEM performance in underserved neighborhoods. Numerous programs (e.g. STEM Philly, STEMCityPHL, iPraxis, Gear-Up Philly, etc.) provide grants, resources, support, and STEM enrichment programs for Philadelphia students and educators. These initiatives focus on increasing access to quality STEM activities and facilitate interest and engagement in STEM fields of study. From 2007 to 2015, grant distribution increased from an average of one to seven annually; however, grants on the whole have become smaller (approximately $35,000 per grant). Also, grants are clustered in two primary areas: North Philadelphia and Center City. No grants are allocated for the Philadelphia Promise Zone or West Philadelphia. The average SAT score in the Promise Zone and Western Philadelphia is 650, and nearly 100% of students in these schools qualify for free and reduced price lunches. Areas with higher SAT scores tend to be the recipients of focused volunteer STEM programs and grants.

Of the dozen established programs in Philadelphia, nearly all operate autonomously from others. The Department of Making + Doing (DM+D), a successful STEM access program for children, recently shut down due to lack of funding. Connecting DM+D with grant funding would have preserved their program. The City of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, and Drexel University have successful STEM-enrichment programs and are leaders in STEM education for communities. Research suggests a need to map STEM efforts in Philadelphia, providing a discoverable platform accessible to funders, program providers, and schools. Mapping grant availability and allocations to programs and initiatives, and connecting the resources with communities founded on needs-based analysis creates a connected network of STEM provision within the City of Philadelphia.

Establishing a board of advisers for STEM community programs, including representatives from Drexel University, University of Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia, and others, would increase visibility on individual efforts and allow for joint strategic planning on allocation of grant funding, resources, and efforts. Metrics that capture the success of these programs will become an essential part of the solution. 

Current data and initial research in the vitality and sustainability of the STEM education ecosystem in Philadelphia indicate a clear need for a centralized mechanism that can ensure the efficacy and viability of long-term collaborative efforts. The status quo does not provide acceptable education options for urban schools but instead contributes to a cycle of stagnant minority accessibility to STEM professions. There are great people making a difference in the STEM education for children of underserved communities. The biggest impediment seems to be a failure to communicate across individual silos of excellence. The call to action is clear: we are larger and more effective together than any one of us is alone.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu