Blast Off! Into STEM Career Pathways

About Authors: Yanling Dai and Yajing Chen are completing their Master’s Degree in School Counseling in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Applied Human Development at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. Yanling is interested in developing positive youth development programs, with an emphasis on developing a career identity. Yajing is interested in developing culturally responsive education programs, especially as it relates to higher education and career development.

Steven is one of the many talented Latinx youth who begin middle school with an interest in science. He wants to explore more advanced science topics and was in search of STEM related opportunities in his school and neighborhoods. Latinx are severely underrepresented in STEM fields most of which are in high demand and offer high wages. According to the Pew Research Center (2018), Latinx adults represent 16% of the overall workforce but only 7% are participating in STEM occupations. Located in the heart of Boston, Sociedad Latina has been successfully working with Latinx youth and their families. Sociedad Latina offers afterschool and summer STEM enrichment programs that help students like Steven build STEM skills and enter STEM academic/career pathways. In collaboration with Boston University, Sociedad Latina incorporates advanced STEM learning opportunities using Network Science and helps them explore how the skills they are learning opens up a wide range of career opportunities.

“We want to make sure that our programs provide real opportunities. STEM programming really allows for Latino and English language learners to be able to participate in fun, engaging and interactive activities, and tie that to real world challenges they’re facing in their community and at the same time, increase their knowledge and interest in STEM careers.” — Alexandra Oliver Davila, Executive Director of Sociedad Latina

Sociedad Latina and Boston University are incorporating important evidence-based strategies to maximize youth engagement in STEM learning. These strategies include hands-on learning, summer bridge program, mentoring and creating safe, “counterspaces,” for youth collaboration.

1. Hands-on Learning
Supported by a growing number of studies (LaMotte, 2016; Yang et al., 2019 & et al), Hands-on Learning is an experiential learning strategy in which individuals are encouraged to participate in STEM learning through a variety of activities (National Science Foundation, 2019). The Network Science club at Sociedad Latina also helps the youth explore the scientific world through hands-on activities. Students learn about the networks around them (e.g. light bulbs and traffic) and develop new network systems using data available to them (e.g. ice bucket challenge and spread of disease/COVID-19). The Engineering and Technology club at Sociedad Latina is another example of hands-on learning. This summer, students received a STEM kit and were guided to make a Solar Panel Car. Steven expressed his excitement about this activity as it was his first hands-on experience using a science kit.

“I could learn about solar energy and work together with my amazing teachers and friends to make an amazing learning experience and have fun in this process.” — Steven, 7th grade

For younger kids, it is important to keep in mind that the activities have to be fun and interactive. He also mentioned, “those fun activities are all the little things but put them together they become a big thing… you can make fun of a little bit and learn a lot at the same time.”

2. Summer Bridge Programs
Many studies suggest that summer bridge programs effectively enhance the diversity of STEM professionals (Ashley, Cooper, Cala, & Browness, 2017; Bruno et al., 2016; Wolfe & Riggs, 2017; & et al). The National Science Foundation (2019) also states that the summer bridge programs provide a more inclusive environment for underrepresented populations and open the door to STEM education and workforce development.

This year, Sociedad Latina offered a five-week Summer STEM Program that focuses on academic contents in the mornings and STEM activities in the afternoons. On Thursdays, the students participated in the Careers club, exploring their career goals and interests and skills aligned with their goals.

“Our goal is to build youth capacity to engage in STEM and help them become aware of how learning advanced STEM skills expands their occupational and life opportunities” — Dr. Kimberly Howard, Principal Investigator, Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development

3. Mentoring
Mentoring is a process where an individual is guided, advised, and modeled by experienced researchers and/or professionals. It establishes a long-term relationship with consistent instruction (National Science Foundation, 2019). Mentoring has been identified as a crucial element of building persistence among underrepresented minorities in the STEM field, as well as a successful strategy aimed at increasing their participation (Charleston, Charleston, & Jackson, 2014; Zaniewski & Reinholz, 2016).
The collaborative project between Sociedad Latina and Boston University provides the youth with an opportunity to build long-term relationships with faculty members from the Physics department as well as Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. Science labs at BU also get involved in this collaboration as guest speakers and by being role models for the youth. The project will also be providing access to industry professionals who will mentor teams of youth around specific projects.

4. Counterspaces/Safe Spaces

“The STEAM Summer Program helped me show my pride in science because I couldn’t ever show it as nobody else likes it with me.” — Steven

Counterspace is a “safe space” for minority groups where they can learn in supportive environments that provide safe and inclusive experiences that promote belonging (National Science Foundation, 2019). As shown from Steven’s experience, programs like Sociedad Latina’s can create a safe and supportive learning environment for minority youth, where they can freely express themselves while cultivating their knowledge, interests and skills. The premise of the network science and career lessons is to let individuals see the world through the lens of how things connect to each other and to themselves. By building participants’ self-awareness and social awareness, the program empowers the students and further engages them to the STEM world. Due to Covid-19, remote learning was designed to be interactive in ways that allowed small teams of youth to work with an adult mentor on learning the Network Science concepts and exploring their emerging STEM talent and skills.

Steven’s experience is just an example of how one program can have a tremendous impact on youth in pursuing interests and careers in STEM fields.

“My love for science is just like a bomb. As soon as I was getting more into the program, it just blew up. I was starting to love science way more.” — Steven

If more students from underrepresented groups can have access to STEM lessons combined with career development, we can expect to see more of them becoming interested in and pursuing STEM academic/career pathways.

“I really wish that more people could learn about the program because I would have assumed if it had more of the push to show it to the people what is like then it would be popular.” — Steven

By Yanling Dai and Yajing Chen



Ashley, M., Cooper, K. M., Cala, J. M., & Brownell, S. E. (2017). Building better bridges into STEM: A synthesis of 25 years of literature on STEM summer bridge programs. CBE Life Sciences Education, 16(3), 1-18.
Bruno, B. C., Wren, J. L. K., Noa K., Wood-Charlson, E. M., Ayau, J., Soon, S. L., Needham, H., & Choy, C. A. (2016). Summer bridge program establishes nascent pipeline to expand and diversify Hawai‘i’s undergraduate geoscience enrollment. Oceanography, 29(2), 286–292.
Charleston, L. J., Charleston, S. A., & Jackson, J. F. L. (2014). Using culturally responsive practices to broaden participation in the educational pipeline: Addressing the unfinished business of brown in the field of computing sciences. The Journal of Negro Education, 83(3), 400-419.
LaMotte, E. M. D. (2016). Unique and diverse voices of African American women in engineering at predominately white institutions: Unpacking individual experiences and factors shaping degree completion (Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA). Retrieved from
NSF INCLUDES Coordination Hub. (2020). Broadening participation in STEM: Evidence-based strategies for improving equity and inclusion of individuals in underrepresented racial and ethnic groups (Research Brief No. 1). Retrieved from
Wolfe, B. A., & Riggs, E. M. (2017). Macrosystem analysis of programs and strategies to increase underrepresented populations in the geosciences. Journal of Geoscience Education, 65, 577-593.
Yang, D., Xu, D., Yeh, Jyh-haw, & Fan, Y. (2019). Undergraduate research experience in cybersecurity for underrepresented students and students with limited research opportunities. Journal of STEM Education, 19(5), 14-25.
Zaniewski, A. M., & Reinholz, D. (2016). Increasing STEM success: A near-peer mentoring program in the physical sciences. International Journal of STEM Education, 3(14), 1-12.

View all posts