HP Blogs

Re-piping the STEM(+) pipeline



There’s a resurging interest in the leaking “STEM education pipeline", as too many talented students are still missing out or dropping out of the academic experiences that lead to science, technology, engineering, and math academic STEM(+) career opportunities. Teaching everyone coding may be part of the solution, but reflecting back on a decade of grant-making, I think the challenge is deeper and the solution more complex: We don’t simply need to plug the leaks, but we actually need to “re-pipe” the learning experience…


Whether it’s a lack of computer science graduates or whether it’s a general STEM(+) talent acquisition challenge, the conversation needs to change – and we’re beginning to see indications. In the US, there has been a recognition for many years that Algebra by 8th grade sets the stage for more college ready courses in high school. But doubling down on an Algebra experience that doesn’t work for many students will only double down on the frustration.


But it’s really not simply an Algebra problem. There is an alarming trend that pulls students away from some of the other core experiences that shape future innovators. Perhaps it’s a toxic mix of too much emphasis on standardized tests (which typically don’t measure creativity and innovation), combined with too much superficial time in the virtual world. Where is the “spare” time to be creative? to dream? to experience problem solving in the physical world? Some of the best engineers I’ve known grew up on a farm, learning to solve problems with duct tape and bailing wire (literally). Have your students picked up a screwdriver lately?



Lesson #1 – The STEM(+) pipeline needs to include more open-ended, student-driven “playful” experiences


Thankfully, there is a growing interesting in the Maker Movement, ETSY crafting, and Do-it-yourself-hack-your-life experiences. The adventure playground in Berkeley is a public space where students invent and create on their own, using real tools to build their own play space. Is there any surprise that some of the most remarkable engineering in the world comes out of Germany, where so many youth can experience an abenteuerspielplatz (adventure play place)? These are the experiences students remember, guided by their own creativity and unleashed by the power of open-ended play.



Lesson #2 – The STEM(+) pipeline needs to include “extraordinary experiences”


There’s a sad story from the years when I went recruiting engineers. I was visiting a world renowned campus, interviewing undergraduate seniors about ready to complete their mechanical engineering degree. More than one conversation went something like this:


(Me) “Tell me about a project you worked on – something you designed and were particularly excited about!”


(Student) “Uh, we didn’t really do projects – we did homework problem sets”


(Me) “Oh – well what about not related to school?”


(Student) “I didn’t have time”


(Me) “I see – thank you very much”


Needless to say, I didn’t refer those students for further interviews, and I never went back to that campus to recruit.


The reality is that students entering the workforce will discover that in the Knowledge Economy, Innovation Economy, or the Economy-that-isn’t-like-it-used-to-be, life is not a problem set. Not only is there not one correct answer to the question, more often than not, you first have to figure out what the question actually is. Knowing how to ask great questions, digging deep to understand and empathize with the people for whom you are designing, turn out to be meta-skills that can only be learned by a project-based/challenge-based experience.


Brad McLain is an educational researcher and co-director of the Experiential Science Education Research Collaborative (www.xsci.org). It is the most articulate description of experiential learning I’ve seen, but also the most thoughtful description of the types of experiences that students need – experiences that will help to re-pipe the pipeline:


“Experiential science learning is all about personal close encounters with the content, processes, and emotions of science. It is a philosophy that emphasizes learning from direct first-person experience and a holistic perspective that includes the self-construction of knowledge as well as emotions, attitudes and beliefs that combine to form a learner’s “science identity.”


Brad introduced me to the research they have done that looks at how students develop a science identity, and not surprisingly, it requires an “extraordinary experience”. In their “Experiential Learning Variables and Indicators Scale” (ELVIS), they describe the characteristics of experiential learning. One of these is “perceived risk” – and the most extraordinary of experiences include high physical, emotional, and intellectual risk.

Suffice it to say that “extraordinary experiences” are what shape our students – and we must do all we can to re-pipe a STEM(+) pipeline that is far too often less than ordinary.



Lesson #3 – The STEM(+) education experience needs to include all the modern STEM(+) tools


I love my abacus; I still marvel at my Dad’s circular slide-rule. These lower-tech tools, much like paper and pencils, have a role to play. But why stop there? We’re tackling enormous, intractable social challenges, and we need all the horsepower (and brainpower) we can muster.


  • Data collection and analysis – especially “in the field”. Smartphones, tablets, and long-battery-life notebooks not only make field data collection more efficient, but the ability to analyze data in real time enables a teachable moment that would otherwise be missed.

  • Data and model visualization – have you experienced a 3D display lately? Who wouldn’t want to be able to fly through a model of the heart to understand how it works?)





  • Rapid ideating – sometimes our fingers work faster than keyboard



  • Rapid prototyping – want to build a 3D model from the MRI scans of your brain? You would if it meant the difference between a successful surgery or not

  • Collaboration (in person and remotely; synchronously and asynchronously) – as mentioned in a previous blog post, Global Fluency (being able to collaborate across cultures and timezones) is the next resume differentiator. It’s the reality of today’s professional workplace. Let’s give our students experiences that prepare them to succeed.


….and the list goes on.


Let’s change the conversation from “fixing the STEM pipeline” to “let’s make STEM(+) learning amazing and extraordinary”…



Jim Vanides, B.S.M.E & M.Ed.

Head of Social Innovation Programs &

Senior Education Advisor

Twitter: @jgvanides





by andyguna
on ‎05-23-2016 09:03 AM

Great post Jim. I totally agree with this. We need a revolution in educational innovation

Showing results for 
Search instead for 
Do you mean 
About the Author
  • Jim Vanides is responsible for the vision, strategy, design, and implementation of education technology innovation initiatives. His focus is the effective use of technology to create powerful learning experiences that help students around the world succeed. He has been instrumental in launching over 1200 primary, secondary, and higher education projects in 41 countries, including the HP Catalyst Initiative - a 15-country network of 60+ education organizations exploring innovations in STEM(+) learning and teaching. In addition to his work at HP, Jim teaches an online course for Montana State University on the Science of Sound, a masters-level, conceptual physics course for teachers in grades 5 through 8. Jim’s past work at HP has included engineering design, engineering management, and program management in R&D, Manufacturing, and Business Development. He holds a BS in Engineering and a MA in Education, both from Stanford University.
footer image