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Language and expectations

Our language speaks volumes about how we see the challenges before us.  The contradictions in what we say we seek to achieve in developing talent for the STEM workforce and how we signal those intentions beg for some unpacking.

One concept that reinforces the link between language and expectation in the maturation of the student has long been known as the "pipeline."  Still in use by many, it is a mechanistic notion that levels individual differences.  Taken literally, the "raw" (god-given) talent is "refined" into a professional scientist.  Is that why we talk of "human resource development"?  Students don't enter any stage of education fully formed.  There is a progression in learning, knowledge, and skills.  There is, in short, growth. 

But this metaphor soon breaks down.  Why do so many start and so few "leak out" the other end?  What is being refined, as opposed to forced out prematurely without a credential that signifies success, or a level of proficiency achieved?  What do institutions do that works with some students but not with others?  And shouldn't the pipeline be more a "semi-permeable membrane" allowing students to enter as well as exit at various junctures? (Office of Technology Assessment, Educating Scientists and Engineers—Grade School to Grad School. June 1988) 

When scientists wonder aloud why students don't gravitate to science, they should start by re-examining their assumptions and phrases like "the best and brightest".  What it implies is what turns most kids off, namely, that:

  • scientists are born, not made
  • not everyone can excel at science
  • aptitude will be manifested early
  • we all learn in the same way and at the same pace, 
  • educators want to develop only some of the talent that enters their classrooms, and
  • if you follow my path, you too can be a star (or an extension of my ego).

If these are so, which research thoroughly denies, then why does NSF sponsor so many intervention programs, from precollege to workforce entry?  Those programs are intended as support for those who are interested, but perhaps not well-prepared, or not well-informed, or simply not yet inspired.  If there is a normal distribution of talent, then NSF is targeting those one standard deviation or more to the right.  Those at two standard deviations don't really need NSF assistance, except perhaps to help pay for their development at the undergraduate or graduate level.

Seen this way, STEM intervention programs are a kind of safety net or timely push that tips the student toward pursuing a science degree or making a series of choices that may usher her or him into a technical career.   Let's see, and call, these programs for what they are—we all need a little help and a structured experience at the right time can change your life. Invoking multiple "pathways" to a single pipeline would seem preferable any day.

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