Wentworth President Calls Early Support Critical for STEM Education

November 10, 2016

Wentworth President Zorica Pantić, left, with Maureen Dischino, the Institute’s executive director of Admissions, at the Nov. 4 conference of the National Consortium of Secondary STEM Schools. (Photo by Nick Washburn)

Wentworth President Zorica Pantić, left, with Maureen Dischino, the Institute’s executive director of Admissions, at the Nov. 4 conference of the National Consortium of Secondary STEM Schools. (Photo by Nick Washburn)

By Dennis Nealon

Wentworth Institute of Technology President Zorica Pantić recently outlined a strategy for improving STEM education that includes connecting young women and under-advantaged students with role models and encouraging them to pursue science careers long before they plan to attend college.

A leading proponent for science, technology, engineering and math education, Pantić reviewed those and other steps for addressing STEM inequities at a Nov. 4 meeting in Boston of the National Consortium of Secondary STEM Schools. The NCSSS includes 100 high schools and 55 affiliate members from colleges, universities, foundations, and corporations in 32 states.

Starting with the younger students across the country—the next generations to enter high school and college—STEM education advocates like Pantić are working to erase widespread stereotypes that inhibit young women and minority students from pursuing STEM degrees and careers. Their chief tenet is that each person has intrinsic worth, and that individual potential is independent of gender, race, and socioeconomic status.

The ultimate goal is to make the country’s STEM classrooms and workforce resemble America and its increasingly diverse population, said Pantić, the first female engineer to lead a higher education institution of technology in the United States.

She told members of the NCSSS that their efforts are playing a crucial role in that goal.

Pantić has joined the consortium in advocating that students be given hands-on STEM experience in their formative years and that support for their pursuing STEM education be increased across the board—from grade school into higher education.

Amid widespread concern over STEM education inequality, there is evidence that the number of young women and minority students studying and working in those fields is actually declining. At the same time, there are indications that the country will need more and more STEM workers in the future. Some estimates project a STEM worker shortfall of nearly one million by 2022.

According to Pantić, Wentworth is increasingly focused on addressing that deficit by recruiting and educating promising young women and minority students in STEM fields. For example, the Institute invites members of the Girl Scouts of America to its campus for an annual program of technical and engineering activities with volunteers from Wentworth’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.

During the academic year, Wentworth convenes networking meetings on campus to bring together students and career professionals in the STEM arenas. And it is building relationships with corporate partners who have begun contributing money for STEM-related scholarships and programs.

The Institute’s Center for Community and Learning Partnerships works with the city of Boston to steer under-advantaged youngsters toward college and into the STEM fields. Each year, Wentworth is increasing the number of students in its Ramp program, which gives an academic leg up to students from Boston’s neighborhoods who are on track to study at the Institute.

At several meetings and conferences in recent months, Pantić has also said that STEM proponents need allies to make progress. She has called on primary and secondary school educators to join higher education, businesses, and state and federal government representatives to dramatically increase the number of underrepresented students in STEM fields. Networking among those groups and sharing ideas and strategies is key to building awareness of shortcomings and solutions, she says.

Some progress is being realized at Wentworth and other institutions. Pantić points out that at Wentworth the number of underrepresented minority students has been rising—from 10 to 13 percent recently. The numbers of young women in the Institute’s construction management program is also increasing, most recently from five to 10 percent.

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