STEM Education Offers A Path Out of Poverty

William G. Clark
President & CEO, Urban League of Rochester, NY

Twitter: @UrbanLeagueRoch


During the 20th century, Rochester, New York, relied on big manufacturers like Eastman Kodak and Xerox to drive its economy. Individuals without a post-secondary degree could find well-paying jobs that provided lifelong careers. Those days are long gone. Manufacturing jobs have declined, and the region is investing in STEM-related industries. This transition is fueling demand for workers with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. Workers with STEM skills also have higher earning potentials compared to other industries. However, people of color are underrepresented within STEM fields, putting them at a disadvantage as the economy continues its transformation.

Research shows that minority individuals are far less prepared to enter STEM industries and obtain STEM-related positions compared to their peers. The 2016 ACT National STEM Report found that only 8% of ACT-tested African-American high school graduates met the ACT College Readiness and STEM benchmarks. While there is high demand for skilled professionals in the STEM fields, African Americans have low degree completion rates. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that African Americans earned only 7.5% of all STEM bachelor's degrees in 2013.

Furthermore, the Rochester City School District, a district with a high percentage of minority students, struggles to prepare students for STEM careers. The district's 2016-2017 report card noted that only 1% of eighth grade students tested proficient in math and 13% tested proficient in science. Furthermore, only 3.7% of students take an Advanced Placement course, which is three times lower than the national average. This lack of achievement is exacerbated by the fact that Rochester is the fifth poorest city among the nation's top 75 metropolitan areas, in which 50.5% of children live in poverty.

Recognizing that STEM careers can lead to economic self-sufficiency, the Urban League of Rochester offers programs to increase students' interest in and preparedness for STEM-related careers. Our Project Ready program, established in 2006 with the support of the National Urban League, prepares students for futures in STEM by providing a range of college and career readiness activities, including college tours, behind-the-business tours, hands-on workshops, and service learning projects. This year, we leveraged the success of our Project Ready STEM program to obtain funding from Charter Communications’ Spectrum Digital Education initiative. This initiative supports Connect Rochester, Project Ready's newest service-learning project.

Connect Rochester is a student-driven service learning project where participants are trained to teach the basics of digital literacy to disadvantaged families and seniors in Rochester. With this grant, minority youth will enhance their digital literacy skills while equipping others with the skills required to participate successfully in our global economy.

The Urban League of Rochester will continue to build on the successes of Project Ready to level the playing field for underrepresented youth. We challenge more businesses to join us in this endeavor so that we can extend our reach and prepare more of our youth for the workforce demands of the digital age.