STEM Career Pathways: Beyond the Braided Stream

Jon Boxerman is a research associate at WestEd. He's served as Co-Principal investigator for ITEST project Closing Gaps: Connecting Assessment and Culture to Increase Achievement and as senior staff for Exploring Careers and Learning Informally to prepare for STEM Employment.

Recently, a colleague shared with me a concept paper on STEM pathways published in GEOS. As a geoscientist and learning scientist by training I was intrigued by how the authors related career pathways to a self-organizing Earth pattern—the braided stream. Indeed, the authors were spot on in their critique of the antiquated “pipeline” model of STEM career development. A pipeline implies an extruder (like a leaky pipeline) and may even drum up images of an oil pipeline like the Keystone Pipeline and the environmental catastrophes that conduit delivers. A pipeline is a metaphor for signifying in a particular industry area there is a way people fall off; it’s a way to discuss STEM career development in terms of a workforce or labor perspective. Pipelines are certainly about being a STEM professional but as the pipeline model connotes, the process is not a linear experience with individuals flowing through rigid, static structures. Pipelines are not about “becoming” a member of the STEM community because the emphasis is on the end point. A pathway (or a system of interconnected pathways) is a more realistic metaphor than a pipeline. 


Career pathway programs are sociocultural structures; and it is these structures that define a career pathway. For example, in California public schools (including Career Technical High Schools) a pathway is "a multiyear, comprehensive high school program of integrated academic and technical study that is organized around a broad theme, interest area, or industry sector.” In this context, career-oriented high schools "integrate both academic and career technical content, problem-based instructional strategies, work-based-learning opportunities, and support services.” Although both metaphors—pathways and pipelines—entail movement, pipelines are fixed canals for people to move through, with no clear entry or exit points and a seeming disregard for local contours and contexts. In some respect the braided river is not much different than a pipeline in that they both channel learners from point a to point b.  


The braided metaphor implies that pathways are organized and intersect but at the same time reduce the pathways themselves to some sort of self-organizing emergent phenomenon. This last point is where I feel the braided stream metaphor falls short. By reducing context to mentoring and supports the metaphor ignores the conditions which allow for the pathways to emerge in the first place. The braided river model overlooks a crucial component of STEM career development and that is the complex nature of the braiding itself. Braided patterns form in streams under certain conditions that depend on many factors, including the slope of the land, the type of sediment, the amount of water, and the properties of the water itself. Unlike patterns in nature, career pathways do not emerge spontaneously, nor are they individual journeys. Each stream provides unique contributions to structure the flow, and the streams change while local conditions change. Career pathway programs in STEM must do the same. STEM workforce development efforts like pathway programs must acknowledge the local context and attend to local contours to be efficient and effective. 


Decades of research on learning and development shows that connecting school science with children’s own lived experiences, cultural ways of knowing, and perceptions can provide learners with opportunities to see the value and possibilities of STEM careers because the can make personally meaningful connections between the knowledge they gain throughout the course of their lives and the knowledge that is important in STEM fields  
(See for example, Bishop 1988, Nelson-Barber & Trumbull 1995, and Castagno and Brayboy 2008).  


STEM means different things in different communities. For example, an Indigenous subsistence fisherman might question why one would need to be a marine scientist when the fishing profession puts food on the table and provides sustenance to one’s community. Locals in ocean-going communities understand how oceans operate, which certainly includes scientific knowledge, but much of this knowledge has become second nature to subsistence fishermen. For many, fulfillment does not necessarily extend to marine careers or to careers outside the community beyond their particular lifestyles. While relevance has been an important theme in efforts to improve formal STEM education and to broaden participation in STEM, program relevance can look quite different and mean different things with respect to the particular context and community. Pathways and other structures designed to include more people in STEM must be responsive to community perspectives and socialization practices. In other words, the field must be better informed about the cognitive strengths and competencies that all students develop in their own communities—resources that can serve as conceptual bridges to broader competence in the larger society, assisting pathway programs in their responsiveness to specific communities. I believe broadening participation in STEM is achievable if we can remove systemic barriers and provide localized supports through the realization of distinct, culturally attuned policies, practices, and pathway programs. 


Bishop, A. (1988). Mathematical enculturation: A cultural perspective on mathematics education. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 

Castagno, A. E., & Brayboy, B. M. J. (2008). Culturally responsive schooling for Indigenous youth: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 941-993. 

Nelson-Barber, S., & Trumbull, E. (1995). Culturally responsive mathematics and science education for Native Students. San Francisco: Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development