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Sep 7th, 2022

Nonprofit Spotlight: Why STEM Education Matters

How STEM programming bridges the opportunity gap.


Gohar Chichian
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STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education is crucial to the future profession of many careers, but it is not always offered enough in schools. STEM can provide new educational and professional opportunities for students, particularly those from underrepresented, low-income communities. High-quality STEM education equips students from different backgrounds with 21st century skills that will prove vital in the workforce.

As the demand for STEM skills and education grows, there are a number of government agencies, community partners, and nonprofits dedicated to collaboration and improving access to high-quality STEM education for young students. There are many STEM organizations for minorities and students from low-income backgrounds, with the goal of expanding access and participation in the field.


The Importance of STEM Education

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In today's economy, a high-quality STEM education is more important than ever. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are growing at a rate nearly twice as fast as other sectors and disciplines. STEM jobs have grown by 79% since 1990, and are projected to grow by over eight percent by 2029. These jobs are also among the best paying.

But too many students in the United States are not getting the STEM education they need to compete in the global economy, opting instead for other disciplines. According to the National Science Foundation, only 40 percent of high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career.

There is an overwhelming disparity when it comes to STEM education and young girls. According to Girls Who Code, 74% of young girls report interest in STEM topics, but only .4% go on to choose computer science as a college major. Similarly, 2 of 3 women in the United States report a lack of encouragement around pursuing a STEM career. Only 31% of women with a bachelor's degree in STEM go on to pursue a STEM-related career. Despite women making up 50% of the college-educated workforce, only 27% of the STEM workforce is made up of women. It's clear that there is a stark disconnect that occurs between early education, higher education, and the workforce; somewhere along the way, women have negative experiences and are discouraged from pursuing STEM education and careers.

There are similar disparities when examining the racial and ethnic diversity of those with STEM degrees and careers. An overwhelming 40% of Black students change their STEM major before earning their college degree. Only 25% of STEM degree earners are made up of Black and Latino students. The data illustrates a trend -- gender and racial diversity in STEM is not due to a lack of interest. There are institutional, environmental, and educational barriers and experiences that prevent women, minorities, and underrepresented students from entering or completing their STEM degrees.

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Taking action requires collaboration and an investment in STEM education at the K-12 level by promoting initiatives like STEM classes, competitions, and after-school tutoring. Representation matters, and STEM organizations for minorities are critical.

In 2009, the Obama Administration launched the 'Educate to Innovate' initiative, with the goal of increasing federal investment in STEM to help advance students' skills in science, technology, engineering, and math, and generate a new generation of STEM teachers dedicated to these efforts. STEM is one of the fastest-growing sectors, with a multitude of professional and employment opportunities.

That's also where collaboration by nonprofit organizations like JerseySTEM come in. STEM organizations for minorities are necessary to increase access and opportunity for communities. JerseySTEM is a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing STEM education to pre-teen and teenage girls and underserved children in New Jersey. The organization is made up of a network co-op of parents, professionals, students, and educators whose goal is to promote excellence in STEM education.

JerseySTEM is dedicated to partnering with local schools and other organizations to create and enhance STEM-oriented educational opportunities as part of students' paths towards college and career readiness, and to develop effective STEM programs and initiatives that engage students and educators. The organization is also committed to bridging the gender gap in STEM education and sharing STEM-related opportunities with underprivileged students and communities.

Their goals are to:

  • Reduce the gender gap in STEM participation
  • Bridge the innovation gap in STEM education by introducing novel formats for teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
  • Address the opportunity gap by expanding access to STEM programs in underserved and underrepresented communities

In New Jersey, approximately one-third of college graduates complete a degree in a STEM-related field. In 2017, 77% of college graduates with an engineering degree were men, and 54% were White. There is a longstanding disparity in STEM education and careers, which is why many STEM organizations and advocates strive to address STEM education earlier on in life. By introducing specialized instruction at a younger age, children have more positive experiences related to STEM and are encouraged to pursue STEM education and careers.

JerseySTEM is making a difference in the lives of students and educators across New Jersey through its initiatives and programming. As part of National Literacy Month, we spoke to JerseySTEM about their mission-critical work and vision for STEM education in New Jersey.

Since joining Catchafire in 2017, JerseySTEM has saved close to $520,000 on nearly 100 projects! By working with highly-skilled volunteers, JerseySTEM has received significant capacity support from a variety of disciplines, such as data analysis, video creation, HR, finance, fundraising, graphic design, social media, and more. With the support of volunteers, organizations on Catchafire are able to focus on serving their missions and communities.


Nonprofit Spotlight: JerseySTEM

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We spoke with Bushra Ali about her unique journey from Catchafire volunteer to joining JerseySTEM and working as a recruiting partner and staff manager. 

Tell us a little bit about JerseySTEM and its work. 

JerseySTEM started out in 2013 when a few parents and educators of middle-school children in Northern Jersey observed that their kids were getting a good education, but their enthusiasm for STEM was fading as they navigated to the upper grades.

The issue was particularly acute in underserved communities due to lack of resources and support, and negatively affected young girls in particular. JerseySTEM’s mission is to bridge the innovation, opportunity, and gender gaps in STEM. 


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How did you get started working with the organization/what is your role? 

I enjoy volunteering in my free time since it is a way of me giving back to the community, getting to meet new people, and gaining more and more experience. I was looking for volunteering opportunities to make my resume stronger so that I could get a full-time position. I wanted to work for someone who wanted to give back to society, and I found Catchafire. I signed up to volunteer and that’s how I found JerseySTEM. I went from applying on Catchafire as a volunteer, to using Catchafire to recruit for JerseySTEM volunteers! 

JerseySTEM is an entirely volunteer-run, pro-bono organization with over 200 volunteers. There are no full-time paid staff. I started by working as staff management in the development department, supporting the team that works on recruiting companies and donors to sponsor programs and provide grants.

Since I had an MBA and Bachelor’s in HR, I also joined the Human Capital team to help with HR recruiting for our volunteers, program instructors, and interns. In both departments, I am responsible for staffing needs – posting positions for our volunteers, conducting interviews, and assisting with onboarding, as well as working on staffing needs and staff engagement. I work to build and streamline the recruiting and engagement processes while creating walk-in decks and developing job descriptions for the existing and new positions.

The JerseySTEM team is made up of a wide variety of people: retirees, teenagers, recent graduates, or those who are mid-career. Many have been working for the organization for two to five years, creating a strong association of passionate people wanting to give back to society.

Tell us more about STEM education and programming - what direct results or impact have you seen with students in your community?

We have two major programs, an outreach program and a local club program. The outreach program bridges the opportunity gap by working with schools and organizations to create after-school STEM programs within low-income underserved areas in New Jersey.

The local club program bridges the innovation gap, serving as our Research and Development department. We test our programs locally in clubs run by parents and volunteers.

Our goal for 2022 is to have 2,500 girls in our programs by the end of the year, and we have made great progress. It’s so satisfying when we see classroom seats and programs full, and enthusiastic students who are willing to attend the mentorship sessions, classroom training, and programs that are being offered. There is an overall positive impact on the community. 

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Students who participated in the JerseySTEM Coding 100 program presented their finished apps at this gathering.


Can you elaborate on things you are excited to see happening in the education field?

We started a scholarship fund to sponsor young girls and their education, with the goal of funding 20 college student volunteer program instructors. These instructors will lead after-school STEM programs for 400 middle-school aged girls in underserved areas of New Jersey, helping them to achieve their potential and experience educational breakthroughs. 


How has Catchafire impacted your work?

I didn’t know a thing like this existed - it was so easy to make my account and start volunteering. When I am posting projects for JerseySTEM, the amount of applicants that I receive is great. It’s wonderful to see a platform like this who can ease the staffing needs for recruiters like us. It’s really a good platform to find such dedicated resources for the company.

I just posted a project for flexible graphic design support and the volunteer has been a great support for our marketing department. We have some incredible volunteers supporting our HR work as well. 

Here's another example: Sandra helped JerseySTEM with professional development over the course of 4 weeks, saving the organization over $4,000. This allowed us to provide after-school classes to an additional 40 girls!



"My fellow volunteers' commitment and enthusiasm for the program made the process of creating a mentorship program engaging and educational. Everyone I worked with was friendly, knowledgeable, and well organized. The mentorship program creates a powerful connection between working professionals and young women to promote excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) by promoting educational opportunities for underprivileged students and communities. I would highly recommend JerseySTEM and all of its volunteers! I look forward to working with the team again in the future."

Sandra O.
Volunteer




Any big projects planned for 2022? What are the ways in which people can get involved to support JerseySTEM?

We are preparing for our in-person fall programming and are looking forward to seeing our students. 

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There are three ways for people to get involved:

  1. Sign up for Amazon Smile: your everyday purchases can support JerseySTEM. Click on the Amazon link and select JerseySTEM as your charity of choice. Each time you shop, Amazon will donate a percentage to the organization.
  2. Contribute to the 2022 scholarship fund program to support STEM education for 400 middle-school students.
  3. Volunteer with us through Catchafire! We have a number of volunteer openings, and we would be so happy to have you.



“We are grateful to Bushra, for her efforts and willingness to donate time and talent. And also, to Catchafire for the support they are providing us. We are looking forward to having more skilled volunteers."

Nabil M.
JerseySTEM Board Member



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