the story of the STEM pipeline


[by Adam]

Stacy, a colleague just a few steps away in my friendly physics department hallway, popped her head in my office the other day. Her approach is signaled with her distinctive two step, stomp clomp, my audio cue that Stacy is dropping by with a question. Everyone in my department has their own cue: a shuffled set of steps from my department’s chair, a subtle wave from my friend Colin, a quick-paced knock from John, a gentle peek around the doorframe from Michelle. Stacy’s cue though is particularly noteworthy because it inevitably leads to discussions about science education. This time she asked: “Where do we find the picture of the STEM pipeline?” It’s a simple question, and if you are in the business you know exactly what “STEM” is and exactly what this pipeline metaphor represents.

STEM, of course, is Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics; and the “pipeline” is the flow of quantized, atomic little students up through the stages of K-16 and into the workforce. I suspect the pipeline is a bit like an oil well, or at least the comic book animation of such, and we have this vision that if we just pump on this a bit we should have an output of little scientists, engineers, and other economy-driving careers pouring out.

Given the last summer and the sickening oil offenses in the Gulf of Mexico, visions of STEM-fluid disasters suddenly come to my mind. I suppose this is only one reason why the pipeline metaphor might not be appropriate.

We also all know the story, and it goes a little something like this: Somewhere in the upper elementary grades, we start to lose interest in science. Sure, in the lower grades, children love science and all that it represents: fun, questions, gooey stuff. But then bad things happen. The subject matter goes dead; the curriculum becomes stiff; we implicitly punish children by punishing schools by restricting funding for anything that doesn’t meet the stipulations of a mandate with a clever acronym. And somehow, girls first drop their interest in science and a year later their male counterparts follow. No child left behind, they all follow one another down a route of disinterest in the study of the natural world.

Like I said, we all know this story. But I can’t find the data for the story. Anywhere. John, my loyal and much better informed mentor and friend, tells me that it’s the same story that he tells. Yet, he’s never written about it because he doesn’t have any data to back it up. We’ve passed this legend down from one generation of science educator to the next. The story is most certainly true, but we all describe it as though we read the primary data, maybe as though we collected it ourselves. Certainly, we all know with some kind of familiarity how it has happened because we’ve all seen it firsthand.

I wrote my friend Heidi about the story of the STEM pipeline, because my friend Heidi is smarter than John, and also because she does her work in girls’ identities with science. She would have cited the story of the STEM pipeline in the first paragraph of her dissertation. But Heidi tried to suggest that she really didn’t read that much — because “early career award” members of national science education organizations can earn such acclaim without reading much research? Perhaps, but more likely, it seems that the story is just a story. Just to prove the case that much more thoroughly, she goes on to actually suggest that I had the story a bit wrong: “…[M]uch of my stuff focuses on students who have the interest and motivation and skills/understanding… and [they] still end up leaving [scientific fields of study].” So, even though Heidi hasn’t read the official story of the STEM pipeline either, we know she’s heard it. We’ve all heard and have retold a different version of this, but is it true? And what part of it is true? And why do we use it? To what end?

Today, my two daughters walked into new classrooms, along with hundreds of other children at our elementary school down the street. They’re laughing and smiling, a bit jittery but mostly excited to see their new classrooms, their teachers, and their friends. It doesn’t look like a pipeline to me. It looks like it could be fun. We are a species that can create pipelines, but we have also invented and even placed a priority on these things called schools. Children learn to get along, they learn to count, and they should be learning about how to ignite sparks. In some ways, I really hope that there isn’t any pipe, narrow and with the potential for clogs. Instead, I hope we have something which launches individuals in all different directions, along trajectories they are passionate about. Rather than trying to fix the leaks in any given pipeline metaphor, we should be trying to produce fountains.

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