Pipelines: Why metaphors matter

by Adam Johnston
(originally posted on writescience.wordpress.com)

In all of my meetings and conversations with him, my dean — the head administrator of the College of Science in which I am gainfully employed — is fond of talking about the “STEM pipeline.” Let me be immediately clear on one point: I can’t fault him for this, nor is he alone, nor is this necessarily a deliberately wrong, bad, malicious, or erroneous phrasing. It’s the collective and addictive word choice of our field, and the verbiage is particularly prevalent with those who have to converse on a national stage. (I’d go so far as to say that the higher up you are on an org chart in my business of science education, or the closer you are to the center of some government agency, the more likely you are to evoke the phrase.) Take a moment to google the term, and you’ll find an array of legitimate and even passionate webpages and citations.

And yet, any time I hear the phrase, “STEM pipeline,” I wince. Not just internally, mind you. My reaction has become physical. While I’m readily admitting that I could be alone in this reaction, I’m also telling you that my loathing is real.

“STEM” is the acronym (pronounced just like it looks) for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” There are stories about why it’s “STEM” now instead of “METS,” and there are those who could add medicine to make it “STEMM” and maintain the current pronunciation, or include arts of various form and create “STEAM”. Other iterations and stories exist as well, but the central storyline is that the acronym represents scientific fields, applied and pure, of various persuasions, especially in the context of our educational system.

Simply as an acronym, STEM doesn’t move my soul, but it doesn’t give me any ulcers, either. It’s the equivalent of folks in the South referring to a group as “y’all” in order to address them all at once, and with commonalities presumed. It’s efficient, bordering on charming.

It’s the “pipeline” piece that creases my brow. If we are to have STEM professionals in the adult world, then there needs to be some kind of preparation for them. Insert, somewhere in here, a literature review for a doctoral dissertation in science education to describe this process, its shortcomings, and what we might propose to do about it. Somewhere there is the output of these science professionals, and somewhere back in time there are those same individuals as children. The question of “How do we get more qualified STEM professionals” is echoed as “How do we get more kids to fit into the other side of the tube?” And, “How do we get them to stay in there until they get to the other side?” The vision of the pipeline is one in which we make that proverbial tube both wide and long enough, create the right amount of pressure, and assure ourselves that there is as little possibility of leaking as possible. This is where I have my problem.

I have a really clear image of pipes. My dad, himself an engineer, always admired culverts as we drove on logging roads when I was a kid. A good culvert preserves a dirt road by maintaining a flow of water from one side to the other. It keeps things clean and orderly, prevents erosion and keeps the status quo of the road in tact. Other pipes twist and turn under the ground and by the miracle of fluid dynamics displaces water from one place to another. We make sure that the pipe is clear of debris and the joints are sealed, and everything works out. We don’t even have to see what’s happening inside those pipes.

Pipes are what we use to drain wastewater or to transport petroleum. Pipes are the rudimentary and passive pathways that get fluids from point A to point B. With the right engineering and cross sectional area, pipes move seawater, sludge, or sewage. The thing is, the pipe and the fluid don’t really do anything. Water, or whatever else you put in a properly designed pipe, is practically predetermined to come out on the other end. Pipes are wonderful at getting out what you put in.

That’s exactly the problem with the pipeline metaphor. On the reality side of the analogy, we’re dealing with people, my children included. True, I could lighten up; it’s a metaphor. Nothing really is “just like riding a bicycle” or “like falling off a log.” We still know what we mean by these phrases in the common vernacular. But I don’t think we really know what we’re talking about with our “pipeline” metaphor, and we may even be deluding ourselves. The problem with our plumbing is not that it has leaks, but because it may be just too passive. On one end of the pipeline there are children, and on the other end we’re imagining scientists. This is no simple work of fluid dynamics. Instead of putting pressure on one side and looking for the drips that come out on the other, we should take out the pipe entirely. We should think of something in which we’re not simply thinking about what the static transport system looks like in its completed form. Instead, we should think not just about the ends of this transport, but about the in-betweens. Moreover, we need to imagine that 13-year-old outside of our constrained pipe. We all know they’re looking around and roaming about. They are living and breathing, and even more important, they are changing right before our eyes.

A child doesn’t just move through our system, but grows in it. Children and young adults need to get out of a pipeline, find a different lane, try on a new hat. Let them spill out and interact with more than some predetermined track. Maybe they need to be on a train, deliberately getting on board, finding new destinations and opportunities at each intersection and transfer to a new route. Maybe we should build a trail system. Perhaps there should be a guided tour. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. Whatever it is, I think that we need to re-envision our track to STEM so that it fosters students’ understanding not just within the path, but allows students to jump in and out of it. Let them leak, so to speak, and foster new talents that we don’t stereotypically imagine for our future STEM professionals. We would do well to look for STEM talent beyond our traditional pipeline. We should have a system that doesn’t feel as if it has to prevent leaks, but instead is motivating enough that it draws people into the natural flow.

Perhaps, in the spirit of the STEM acronym itself, an appropriate metaphor could be a garden. Rather than push particles through, efficiently but passively, we could think of our next generation of STEM professionals and citizens to have been grown. After all, the people in the pipeline we keep talking about are, in all ways, growing. We could do well to recognize this and, rather than constraining growth of a child and hoping that they make it through, provide rich soil, devoted gardeners, and the right amount of water. Most of all, we need to pay attention to more than just the boundary conditions on each end of the pipe. We need to value the dynamic person and all the potential changes, experiments, and curiosities they could develop. We just need to make sure they have the room to do so, and we need to provide them with the support to do this to their greatest potential.