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Study Urges a Movement Away From Traditional STEM Pipelines to Embrace Diversity of STEM Educational Pathways

It’s normally hard to think of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) research as anything other than innovative, diverse, outside the box, and frontier-breaking. However, institutions have been slow to adapt to a similar demand for this innovation and diversity in education. As a result, students from underrepresented backgrounds are turning away from STEM, according to a new study, Barriers and Opportunities for 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees, published 14 January by the National Academies Press.

According to the study, postsecondary institutions, STEM departments, accrediting entities, and state and federal education policies—grounded on the STEM pipeline metaphor that there is only one linear route to a bachelor’s STEM degree—have largely ignored the various pathways taken by students today to earn a STEM degree.

In this scenario, all groups are affected, but the scales have tipped against students from underrepresented backgrounds such as blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Despite the fact that interest in STEM degrees among all undergraduate degree seekers (including underrepresented groups) at 2- and 4-year institutions is high, the study said the degree completion rate for all STEM aspirants is about 40%, with the lowest 6-year completion rates found among students from underrepresented groups.

Shirley Malcom, head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Program at AAAS, chaired the committee that produced the report. The study reflects an assortment of proposed challenges and solutions assembled by 18 committee members from various state-supported and private 2- and 4-year colleges and universities. They brought expertise in higher-education policy, research, counseling, and STEM education reform, among other topics.

According to Malcom, the report painted a picture on the limitations of prevailing notions about the effectiveness of STEM education, urging student-centered solutions. Some of these student-centered solutions might include: evidence-based instructional strategies as opposed to traditional lectures; the adoption of research-based curricula through summer institutes as opposed to the shorter 1-day workshops for training faculty; stronger partnerships between 2-year and 4-year institutions to better support transfer students and get them one step closer to graduation; and in terms of transfer policies, focusing on course learning outcomes, rather than strictly on content coverage. However, she echoed the report in that the answer to the growing problem is an institution-wide or systemic approach.

“The way these students are using the institutions to get their preparation for STEM is very different from how policies seem to be structured,” Malcom said.

This means students are taking non-traditional pathways to completing their undergraduate STEM degrees. The report explains these nontraditional pathways include combining credits from multiple institutions, transferring from 2-year to 4-year institutions (often without completing a degree or certificate program), transferring from 4-year to 2-year institutions, enrolling at multiple institutions both simultaneously and sequentially, and taking college credit in high school through dual enrollment and advanced placement courses.

The problem appears to be how student success is measured. The report highlights that institutions taking the challenge of providing high-quality STEM education to students from disadvantaged backgrounds more often than not are doing so with fewer resources than elite institutions. Yet, in many cases, current accountability structures reward elite institutions, but penalize those with fewer resources. According to Malcom, this is most evident in performance related-funding. In her view, if an institution is starting with a really selective group of students (that is, those who come in with really good preparation as evidenced by high GPA and SAT scores) they should graduate a larger percentage of these students. But Malcom asks, "Are they being rewarded for what they have provided the students or for the better preparation that the students are bringing? And what about institutions that are serving students who need more?"

Muriel Poston, former dean of faculty at Pitzer College in California and one of the committee members who contributed to the report said, “If community colleges are only considered successful by virtue of degree completion, then students transferring into and graduating from other institutions are not accounted for." In her case, throughout her 20 years of teaching experience, students from community colleges without an associate degree have been recruited, taking their educational experience and layering it with their four-year private liberal-arts college experience in an attempt to have degree completion within the four-to-six year period.

“So, has our community college been successful by helping build a pathway into private liberal arts education? I would say yes,” added Poston.

 One way the report suggests solving this problem of accountability is by changing the policies to increase the transfer of community college course credits and recognizing this fluidity between 2-year and 4-year institutions.

“This is a contribution to a much bigger problem and it raises many questions as it seeks to answer,” said Malcom. To find these answers, Malcom said more research is needed to know these policy changes might play out in the field. 

Cumulative percentage of 2004 STEM aspirants who completed STEM degrees in 4, 5, and 6 years


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

One persistent question is: If many of the students who enter STEM degrees and switch majors afterwards are actually passing introductory STEM courses, why are they abandoning their aspirations for STEM?

The report noted concerns about the way STEM is taught and the lack of supportive learning environments. These supportive environments include many co-curricular elements such as tutoring, mentoring, and providing students authentic STEM experiences.

 “What made this report important was to really think about the culture of undergraduate STEM education as both an opportunity and a barrier,” said Poston. This culture, which the report refers to as a “weed-out” culture, propagates an unsupportive environment and subsequently the loss of potential STEM students. In fact, citing one study, the report details how students interviewed about why they switched majors often cited uninspiring and ineffective classroom environment and teaching practices as the reason. 

The opportunity, the report stated, is in training effective mentors and creating a culture of inclusiveness by providing faculty opportunities to become more aware of implicit bias, stereotyping, and ways to avoid either. Faculty behavior and attitudes inside and outside the classroom, the report said, can provide cues that help students persist toward STEM degrees.

Poston added that each institution is going to need a multiplicity of approaches for supporting students and collecting data at a national scale. To do this, Poston believes it is important to understand who the STEM faculty is (tenure-track, adjunct, and part- or full-time non-tenured track instructors), how they are supported, and who is doing what in the classroom.

Unfortunately, this data was not available, as quoted in the report:

Barriers and Opportunities in STEM report


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

“In fact, we were unable to even find recent national data on who teaches STEM courses (full-time tenured faculty, adjunct, or other), the level of instructional training that instructors had received, or alignment of instructor practices with evidence-based practices.”

According to the report, most large-scale data systems that include information on undergraduate students are built to track students in a pipeline model, focusing primarily on full-time or first-time students. This makes it difficult to understand which students are being served by what institutions at various times.

Malcom thinks institutions need to be attentive to their students and collect their own data on student success in a disaggregated format, taking into account how gender, race/ethnicity, and other parameters play out in each field.

The report identified other problems as barriers to student-degree completion, such as rising student debt and financial need. Other policies were noted as deterring students from enrolling in some STEM programs, such as differential pricing, where undergraduates are charged more tuition for upper- versus lower-division coursework. The report stated concerns by some that differential pricing policies will have a “chilling effect” on attracting students from underrepresented groups.

“I think addressing the issues raised in the report is going to be a challenge for the scientific community for a while. How do we improve the quality of teaching? How do we build systems and structures that can support student learning? How do we have a student-centered approach to address a lot of these concerns? So that students who are capable of pursuing STEM fields and who are desirous of studying STEM fields, are supported and encouraged to do so,” Malcom said.