‘Leaky pipeline’ to STEM careers is misleading metaphor

iStock_000002424978XSmallAre you worried that too few of your students are taking advanced science and math courses and are on track for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers?

It’s much too early to predict their career trajectories, says a new study in Science Education.  The path to a chosen career is rarely linear.  In 10 years, many students who  did not take advanced math and science classes (i.e. women and minority students) will be working in in the fields of science, technology and engineering, researchers say.

Analyzing data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of the Eighth-Grade Class of 1988 (NELS:88), researchers found that nearly half of 2002 high school graduates now working in STEM careers did not take calculus in high school.  16% had neither studied calculus nor expressed an interest in a STEM degree or STEM career in grades 8 and 12.

An overlooked and potentially more important indicator than academic benchmarks is a student’s expression of interest in STEM at an early age.  Identity often mediates a student’s pursuit of, persistence in, and attainment of a STEM degree, the researchers write.

The “leaky pipeline” metaphor is commonly used to illustrate the projected STEM workforce shortage based on simple criteria such as the number of students who earn STEM degrees in college.  Compared with the overall population of 9th graders, the number of college graduates with STEM degrees is very small, implying that we are facing a critical STEM workforce shortage.

Leaky pipeline assumes only one trajectory

But this is misleading and overly pessimistic, researchers say, because there are alternative pathways to STEM careers.  A one-size-fits-all trajectory ignores that career choices are often made in the context  of life course events such as getting married and having children and that many people find their way into STEM careers later in life.  A student’s early identity with a field is rarely taken into account by pipeline graphics. Also, some students who earn STEM college degrees decide to pursue other career paths.

“We are not arguing that early interest in science or engineering careers and completing calculus are meaningless indicators in identifying future scientists or engineers,” the authors write, but that these factors are overweighted and “perpetuate a myth that people without these attributes cannot, will not, or should not bother to try to enter a STEM career.

“The perpetuation of this myth is harmful to the agenda of increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce as it is precisely those women and underrepresented minority groups who are less likely to have the characteristics espoused by models informed by the pipeline metaphor.”

Four pathways to STEM careers

In this study, researchers used interest in a STEM career in 8th grade and interest in a STEM degree in 12th grade as benchmarks.   They constructed a 4-pathway model for entry into STEM careers:   Completion of high-school calculus, interest in a STEM career in 8th grade, interest in a STEM degree in 12th grade and all three factors.

Professionals in life sciences, engineering and technology may follow different trajectories to their careers,  so it’s important to look at behavior by individual fields.  For example, a greater percentage of mathematicians and engineers take high school calculus compared to those in other STEM fields.  One-third of those who earn life science degrees didn’t take calculus in high school, nor did they express interest in interest in a STEM degree or career in K-12.  This is true for less than 20% of those earning physical science degrees.

“Why do so many who have both the interest and the academic credentials not end up in STEM careers or, on the flip side, How do so many who finish high school with neither the articulated interest nor the academic credentials deemed necessary by the pipeline end up in STEM careers?, “ the researchers ask.  “These questions are critical to understanding and disrupting the status quo, in which a small and relatively homogenous subset of the population pursues careers in STEM, and are thus worthy of future study.”

 “Problematizing the STEM Pipeline Metaphor: Is the STEM Pipeline Metaphor Serving Our Students and the STEM Workforce?” by Matthew Cannady et al., Science Education, May 2014, Volume 98, Issue 3, pp. 443-460. 


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