The Myth of the STEM Pipeline

The metaphor can have an especially negative impact on women and underrepresented groups, argues Wendy L. Hill.

October 2, 2019
 
 
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Over the years, I’ve observed that high schools often promote as a badge of honor the percentage of graduates planning to pursue a degree in STEM fields, given the increasing emphasis on the nation’s need for employees with such expertise. Although I applaud a rigorous STEM curriculum, this heralding can perpetuate the myth of the STEM pipeline.

The STEM pipeline is a commonly employed, even overused, metaphor describing the path to careers in science, technology, engineering and math. But the concept of a rigid career pipeline sends the wrong message. The term has codified a narrow educational path that begins as early as preschool and continues through college and career. The pathway is predicated on having savvy parents and teachers coaching a child with an unwavering love of STEM. The student must take the right courses, leading to a succession of STEM-related positions. Take a misstep and you leak out of the sluiceway, banished forever from the world of STEM.

The problem with the pipeline model is that the data just don’t support the concept. Work by Matthew A. Cannady, Eric Greenwald and Kimberly N. Harris has demonstrated how overly simplistic and limiting the pipeline metaphor is. They found that only 39 percent of the people who have careers in STEM showed an interest in those disciplines during secondary school and took the relevant course work, such as calculus. In other words, the majority -- 61 percent of those with careers in STEM -- either didn’t evidence an interest in such fields or didn’t take the important gateway course, or both. They should have long ago leaked from the pipeline but didn’t!

The STEM pipeline metaphor erroneously presents a series of invariant steps necessary to pursue a major in STEM. I worry that young people are deciding too early to forgo a STEM career if they don’t have the “right profile.” This rigid and reductionist approach can have an especially negative impact on women and underrepresented groups in their pursuit of STEM careers.

Too often in my neuroscience classes, I taught young women who, despite doing well and displaying an obvious passion and interest in scientific topics, would tell me unequivocally that they were not good at science. They based their conclusion on faulty reasoning -- perhaps it was that they hadn’t concentrated their high school studies in science, or that they found certain math classes challenging. In essence, they were reinforcing the mind-set that if they had not already gotten into the STEM pipeline when they were in middle school or high school, it was much too late to pursue it in college. I don’t recall a single male student stating a similar view.

A better alternative to the pipeline metaphor is a model of more fluid pathways to careers in STEM -- a perspective better in keeping with the data that substantiates multiple paths to such careers. Indeed, I have met and worked with many colleagues who have experienced a seemingly indirect or even circuitous path to a STEM career that is no different than the multiple pathways that lead to other professions.

Adopting a more fluid pathway approach, one that emphasizes a growth mind-set and the joy of discovery inherent in answering important scientific questions, would result in a more inclusive approach to the STEM fields. Certain courses or experiences are important, but it’s valuable to highlight that succeeding in STEM is just as much or more about one’s attitude and approach -- such as being inquisitive and creative, rigorous and purposeful, collaborative and persistent.

I urge STEM professors who are welcoming new students not to perpetuate the pipeline myth. Don’t dismiss or ignore those students who describe themselves as majoring in humanities or social sciences and only filling seats in your class as part of a required curriculum. Use high-impact teaching approaches, such as project-based learning and investigative laboratories that allow students to genuinely experience being a scientist or engineer, in the same way that colleagues in the arts and humanities help ignite creativity in a studio art or writing class. Employ inclusive pedagogies in your classroom so that everyone feels welcome. The data show that many students who choose to major in STEM fields do so because of the encouragement, excitement and energy of a particular faculty member.

Department chairs, academic deans and provosts should also put their resources and leadership behind supporting inclusive excellence in STEM at their institutions. They should recognize the strategic importance of developing such an inclusive environment. Given that women are attending college at higher rates than men, and that underrepresented minorities represent an increasing proportion of high school-age students, universities need to be mindful of attracting and advancing these talented young people.

Moreover, our society would benefit from supporting a STEM environment that reflects the diversity of the nation’s population. We need commitment such as that shown by those institutions participating in the AAC&U Teaching to Increase Diversity and Equity in STEM (TIDES) program. Examples like Lafayette College’s newly created Hanson Center for Inclusive STEM Education show important steps in advancing this important work. Focused mentoring and advising programs, early research experiences for students, and curricular innovation are just some of the ways that have been shown to be effective in fostering a dynamic and vibrant STEM program for all.

We need to create a culture and ecosystem in STEM that include underrepresented groups and encourages their and others’ participation -- a culture and ecosystem that don’t care how or when you got there but welcome you when you arrive. We want truly inclusive pathways to STEM that embrace everyone. The STEM fields will be stronger as a result.

Bio

Wendy L. Hill is the Rappolt Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience at Lafayette College and former provost and dean of the faculty. She is currently the head of the Agnes Irwin School, an all-girls’ independent school in Rosemont, Pa.

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