If you teach STEM, you’ve heard about the STEM pipeline. It’s a term that’s been used since the 1970’s in the United States. It is still commonly used to analogize STEM retention.
The pipeline expresses a path for students to move through that ultimately ends with the STEM workforce. Many times, there are leaks in the pipeline, with students migrating away from STEM careers. The idea is to strengthen the pipeline to prevent leaks, and ultimately get more qualified individuals to fill STEM positions.
Reasons For Leaks In The Pipeline
Lack of engagement
Students may lack engagement in STEM topics. Research supports over and over that hands-on methods to learning STEM increase engagement, understanding, and retention of STEM learnings. Whether project-based learning, phenomenon-based learning, or anything in between, the learning must be relevant to the students and promote engagement. Furthermore, you must provide real-world examples of STEM topics to inspire engagement.
It’s not enough to “chalk talk” and expect students to relate rote practices like worksheets to real, future opportunities. By giving examples of real people in real STEM jobs (think STEM “heroes” like Katherine Johnson or Neil deGrasse Tyson), students can imagine themselves in those roles too!
Unequal access to STEM learning
There is a known achievement gap in the United States, and certain subgroups of students are experiencing disparity in the education they receive. These groups tend to be defined by socioeconomic status, gender, or race and ultimately, these disparities lead to less women and minority representation in the STEM workforce.
How To Plug The Pipeline
We need to plug the leaks by providing a clear sight of the future for our students. 74% of middle-school girls who participate in STEM activities say they are likely to study computer science in high school. However, only 25% of computer workers are women. What happened to the young girls who wanted to pursue computer science? A leak in the pipeline.
Kindergartners are able to improve math scores by 13 points between fall and spring, but 8th grade students typically score 14 points below proficiency levels on national examinations. Another leak in the pipeline.
We can make topics like math or computer science more engaging if we use the right tools to apply these ideas to real-world examples. When your students ask, “When am I ever going to use this?” have an answer ready for them!
To reduce and prevent pipeline leaks, all children regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status need access to engaging STEM education. We can improve on the statistics we read about in STEM by addressing the problems early. While it’s important to teach to standards, it’s also important to equip students with the skills they need to be successful once they enter the “real world”. It’s a tough road, and you’ll need the support of your fellow teachers, administrators, and community partners. The best thing you can do is stay educated on what’s new in both STEM education and STEM fields and apply these practices in your classroom.