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STEM Pathway Development: Who Is Connecting the Dots?

February 2013, Volume 26, Number 2

By Claire Phillips

The 2012 STEMtech conference fulfilled its promise by showcasing innovative practices designed to spur improvements in STEM education at all levels. One example of collaboration was a well-attended Sunday morning session, during which an audience, primarily composed of community college STEM leaders, shared experiences and described significant challenges STEM students face, as well as pilot programs intended to overcome those challenges. However, a savvy administrator sitting in the audience during the conference might have wondered how STEM educators really know if such pilot programs contribute to the construction of a comprehensive framework designed to systemically increase STEM program college graduation rates, especially given statistics pointing to the lack of increase in U.S. STEM graduates in the 21st century (U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, 2012).

STEM Myths Versus Reality

During this Sunday morning STEMtech session, the audience enjoyed using clicker technology to test their knowledge of trends related to STEM students’ progression through the educational system. The first question asked them to give their opinion on whether or not a community college graduate who transfers into a university STEM program was as likely as a native university student to attain a STEM baccalaureate degree; studies have shown that the transfer student is just as likely to graduate with that degree with comparable levels of success. Interestingly, the audience was somewhat evenly divided  in their response; however, subsequent discussion favored the viewpoint that students who have persevered through the somewhat difficult prerequisite coursework at the community college level had developed the necessary knowledge and skill sets required to succeed at the four-year level.

The second question posed to the audience tested the traditional notion that students interested in STEM subjects most often move directly from high school to a university program and stay at that university for four years before graduating. Again the correct response—that this assumption is no longer accurate—prompted lively discussion about the swirling of STEM students between educational sectors, a national phenomenon. The third notion that was debunked during the session was that community college STEM curriculum is considered, both by some educators and by many students, to be less rigorous than comparable coursework taken at a university; a lower degree of transfer shock was a relevant factor in creating this misconception. The final clicker test question was: “True or False: Dropout/withdrawal rates in STEM coursework remain high in the 21st century.” Sadly, as participants correctly surmised, statistics show that this statement is true at both two- and four-year levels. This question prompted a rich dialogue about the barriers community college practitioners observe in STEM students’ pathways.

Barriers Persist

Conference presenters and participants were fairly unified in their belief that significant barriers contributing to STEM students’ lack of educational goal attainment still exist at all levels. Participants’ concerns about those roadblocks were not always vocalized during the conference sessions, but dialogue about the significance of those barriers took place in informal discussions held during break periods. A key barrier often cited was students’ poor academic preparation in prerequisite coursework, especially in math fundamentals required for most STEM fields. STEM educators described how the milieu surrounding U.S. students today does not particularly support them signing up for “hard”—i.e., STEM—courses that might jeopardize their GPAs. However those who do excel in upper-level math and science courses are often negatively labeled as nerds by their peers, and even more insidious to the U.S. educational system, children today are not coached on ways to overcome initial failure through perseverance—a requisite skill in more advanced STEM courses. Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor, terms this skill set “grit.” She defines grit not only as perseverance in spite of roadblocks but as working assiduously through challenges with an eye toward long-term goals. She echoes the sentiments of conference participants when she states that educators and parents should encourage students to work not only with intensity but also with stamina and prepare youth to anticipate failures (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007).

A second barrier commonly cited was a lack of roadmaps designed to give students the guidance needed to navigate difficult STEM educational pathways. Especially for low-income and first-generation college students, limited knowledge of the long-term value of STEM education, combined with the lack of targeted advising about STEM coursework, often puts students behind the educational eight ball and limits their long-term options in STEM career fields. STEM-specific advising and mentoring options highlighted during conference presentations appeared to be limited to pilot programs and were often spearheaded by an individual educator passionate about the need to make a difference in the lives of a narrowly focused group of students, such as minority males. If the advocate or funding, or both, disappear, the assumption is that the program also dissolves.

A third obstacle to STEM student success that was mentioned during conference presentations was the paucity of effective inter-sector transfer and articulation programs. While state and national policy makers have begun putting policies in place that are designed to facilitate inter-sector credit transfer, effective processes and feedback loops necessary to ascertain if those policies actually work are still mostly missing from the equation. For example, how can one ascertain if STEM transfer agreements are systemically improving students’ ability to transfer coursework, or if instead new loopholes that minimize transfer effectiveness are simply being put in place, thereby undermining the process? Who keeps track, at a macro level, of the number of students who are able to successfully transfer STEM coursework from high school to community college, and then on to the university level? How do we know if that promising high school STEM student ultimately ends up in a STEM-related career field? How long does it take him or her to achieve that goal, and how can we identify successful STEM graduates to ask them to mentor others?

During conference presentations, the elephant in the room seemed to be the barriers individuals facilitating STEM pilot programs presumed they could not overcome since the obstacles dealt with institutional policy matters beyond their  influence. Barriers included poor alignment among educational sectors, including misalignment of STEM curriculum, as well as a general feeling of uncertainty about STEM program sustainability beyond the pilot or grant period. STEM program coordinators privately expressed concern that, once grant funding was eliminated, their organization would not be able to provide the monetary support required to sustain the program, a realistic concern in this time of continued budget cuts and decreased state educational expenditures.


As demonstrated during 2012 STEMtech conference presentations, U.S. educators are making great strides at the grass roots level to effect positive changes in STEM educational processes. At the national level, government agencies and private organizations have produced reams of documentation demonstrating the need for sweeping changes in STEM education in order to produce additional graduates. But there still appears to be a certain level of disconnect between high-level educational policy bodies and grass roots level practitioners like those presenting at STEMtech. One might ask who is accepting the challenge to connect the dots between the grass roots programmatic level and national and regional policy level to formulate an organized and interconnected framework of STEM educational improvements. For example, what entities have the research database infrastructure through which large sets of longitudinal data on STEM students can be systematically collected, correlated, and disseminated back to STEM educators?

While some intervention strategies discussed at the conference are limited in scope by definition, such as intensive mentoring and outreach programs for specialized student groupings, other STEM initiatives would benefit greatly from a more integrated approach. “Statewide and nationwide consortia, where clusters of programs are coordinated, organized or offered in collaboration across a region, state, or nationwide, or across age and grade levels, can have more compelling effects than single programs operating in isolation” (Packard, 2011). It would be advantageous to more systematically identify similarities in successful pilot programs with the goal of creating nationwide systems of interrelated STEM program clusters. Conference presenters seemed eager not only to share their pilots but also to learn from comparable programs tested in other parts of the country. After all, why recreate an entire wheel when an effective localized spoke has already been constructed?

Moving beyond policy statements and keynote address talking points to systemic STEM transformation takes a concerted and coordinated effort by practitioners at all levels of influence, as well as an influx of funds to support such efforts. While STEM administrators may sympathize with their counterparts in non-STEM fields who demand equal distribution of increasingly limited funding, if one begins with the assumption that a key goal of higher education is to prepare students to successfully enter the workforce with 21st century skills, the answer becomes apparent. Statistics show that well-paid industry positions are waiting to be filled by STEM graduates if higher education can produce them. Some pundits even believe that the long-term future of the American economy is intrinsically tied to the resolution of this problem. Let’s work together to connect the dots—all the exciting STEM initiatives presented during STEMtech—into a cohesive whole that can systemically attack and overcome this challenge.


U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. (2012, April). STEM education: Preparing for the jobs of the future. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.jec.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=6aaa7e1f-9586-47be-82e7-326f47658320

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101. Retrieved from http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/Grit%20JPSP.pdf

Packard, B. W. (2011, December). Effective outreach, recruitment, and mentoring into STEM pathways: Strengthening partnerships with community colleges. Paper commissioned for the Summit on Community Colleges in the Evolving STEM Education Landscape. Washington DC: National Academy of Science Meeting. Retrieved from http://nas-sites.org/communitycollegessummit/files/2011/12/NAS_Packard_Mentoring_toupload-2.pdf

Claire Phillips is an instructional dean of the STEM division at Lone Star College, Cy-Fair in Houston, Texas.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 02/01/2013 at 9:06 AM | Categories: Leadership Abstracts -