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The future of STEM in Massachusetts depends on the CHERISH Act

Cara PIna

Growing up, I didn’t have many biology teachers who looked like me. In grade school nearly all my science teachers were white men, and in college, there were even fewer professors of color. When I was younger, I wondered why there weren’t more girls and women of color like me in the sciences. As I got older and pursued a teaching career of my own, I realized that increasing educator diversity wasn’t only possible, it was imperative. And with the CHERISH Act, Massachusetts finally has the chance.

The CHERISH Act, known as the Committing to Higher Education the Resources to Insure a Strong and Healthy Public Higher Education System Act, is groundbreaking legislation aimed at transforming public higher education in Massachusetts. It would tackle the equity gap in two critical ways. First, it would make college truly debt-free for all students across the Commonwealth. Second, the legislation would address the chronically low pay of our public higher ed faculty, which is far below other universities and other similar professions, and it would create high-quality workplaces with fair wages and benefits to attract and retain faculty and staff, especially from underrepresented communities.

This legislation is crucial because educator diversity has far-reaching impacts, affecting not only the quality of education but also the future of STEM fields. One in three undergraduate students at Framingham State University, where I teach, identify as students of color, yet our faculty demographics do not reflect our student body’s growing diversity. And low pay and benefits at our public institutions mean we’re losing talented candidates to other colleges and careers. As a result, we are missing out on opportunities to help students see themselves reflected in their teachers and mentors, which is crucial for fostering an inclusive and equitable learning environment.

Here are a few reasons why diversity in the educator workforce is essential:

Representation matters. College students benefit from seeing educators and mentors who look like them. A diverse teaching workforce can inspire students who might otherwise feel disconnected from their coursework. It sends a powerful message that anyone, regardless of background, can succeed in STEM.

Diverse educators bring a rich array of perspectives, experiences and teaching styles to the classroom that may help them understand the unique needs and challenges of students from various backgrounds, leading to more effective and inclusive teaching practices. The CHERISH Act will hopefully lead to more students of color having the opportunity to attend college, which makes addressing educator diversity even more important.

Research consistently shows that students of color perform better when taught by educators of the same background. Increasing educator diversity can help bridge education gaps, ensuring all students have equal opportunity to succeed in STEM. Studies also show that diverse teams are more innovative and better at solving complex problems. By increasing diversity among STEM educators, we not only prepare students for the future but also foster a more innovative and inclusive workforce for STEM industries in Massachusetts.

By nurturing diverse talent in the education sector, we plant seeds that will support increased diversity in the STEM workforce down the road. This, in turn, helps address broader societal issues related to representation, bias, and innovation within STEM fields.

If lawmakers don’t take action and pass the CHERISH Act, they risk perpetuating the underrepresentation of women and people of color in STEM education, which will have far-reaching consequences for the career opportunities available to these groups in these increasingly essential sectors of our economy. The consequences of inaction are clear.

Disparities in STEM education and careers will persist, limiting opportunities for those who could make meaningful contributions but are discouraged by the lack of role models. Our nation’s competitiveness in the global STEM landscape will suffer if we do not fully harness the talents and creativity of all our students and our workforce to address complex scientific and technological challenges that require innovative solutions.

The need for educator diversity in Massachusetts, especially in STEM fields, is undeniable, and the CHERISH Act presents a game-changing opportunity to address this gap. By supporting this legislation, we can cultivate a more inclusive and equitable educational system that benefits not only students but also the future of STEM and our broader economy. It is a critical step toward a more inclusive future for the next generation of scientists, innovators, and educators in Massachusetts.

Cara Pina is a biology professor at Framingham State University.