In recent years, student dropout rates in STEM programs have received a lot of attention. The problem is often referred as the leaky pipeline, and that is a harmful metaphor. It implies that we can “plug the holes” (Cannady et al., 2014), or worse, that if we simply increase the flow rate of students, we can compensate (Metcalf, 2010). It’s a metaphor that makes assumptions about student uniformity that are not true in any field. Our students don’t all start from the same point, they don’t flow at a constant rate, and they don’t all share the same end goal. All of us teach students who come from a diversity of backgrounds, and with dramatically different goals. We need a new metaphor. But how do we describe the challenges of higher education in a productive way, one that permits differences between students, allows us to set goals as instructors, and helps us explain our needs to students and administrators alike? What do we want for our students? We want them to grow!
Consider how much students in a course are like a garden. Different plants grow in the same garden, but at different rates and with different production potentials and requirements for care. Classrooms should be carefully planned with spaces that respect different growth needs. Some plants are leafy and broad and will shade out others in their haste to bloom. Others may need a trellis to support their growth. This is the nature of the plant, not a commentary on its value. Some need more water; others drown if there’s a deluge. Plants cannot move unless we move them (ask any student who takes root in a seat on the first day of class!). But if knowledge is light, we have to find a way to let it shine on every plant.
As educators, we often find ourselves at odds with administrative goals. Administrators would prefer our gardens be uniform crop fields. It is easier, it is less expensive, and it is entirely unrealistic given educational growth. Cramming our students together and expecting all to grow at the same rate is ludicrous if we seriously believe they have different needs, interests, and abilities.
At the same time, colleges cannot offer every student individualized instruction. But instructors can respond to differences by providing students with the slightly different care they need to survive and flourish. This requires faculty to be educated about inclusive language, disabilities, and more. Those same faculty deserve praise for experimenting with new active learning techniques as they try to reach more students. This requires faculty to be given the administrative support they need to support their students, reasonable class sizes, for example. We all must embrace diversity as a strength rather than an obstacle even as we take on the additional work that maintaining diversity requires.
The language we use to describe diversity is an integral part of celebrating it. A leaky pipeline signifies a failure. Majoring in STEM or any other field is not something to be survived. Our role as gardeners is to encourage growth in whatever way suits a given plant. A flower does not have more value than a tree. A driven, organized premed student does not have more worth than a reflective future teacher. Labelling diversity is not the same as supporting it. We can acknowledge that a student needs more support by thinking of them as a vine instead of calling them “an underrepresented minority.” Anchor a vine and watch the heights it can reach. We need to release our classroom gardens from assumptions about what cultivars we ought to grow. The first person to grow an artichoke was probably thought to be insane, but helping it to grow and flourish led to something delightful and nourishing.
Challenging students is necessary and sometimes painful. Pruning plants should not kill them; it should be what makes them stronger. How do we create exams and assignments that strengthen our students without wilting their passions and ambitions? Further, are we ensuring equitable but various opportunities to show growth? We can nurture those who prefer to sit in the shade with chances to contribute opinions in writing as well as aloud. We can show those who grow quickly the value of self-assessment and self-awareness so that they grow strong as they grow tall. And as we would not prune a plant down to nothing in a day, we can incorporate multiple measures of student performance before, during, and after learning to provide gentle shaping without destroying confidence. Sometimes students who are “weeded out” just needed a different approach to succeed. And students who decide not to remain in our fields should be transplanted, not discarded. They are not worth less if they opt to explore different avenues to growth.
Which plant were you in your undergraduate years? There’s a sunflower in the front row; we all have one, and many of us were one. Watch that group of flowers sitting together in the middle just about to start chatting. There’s a cactus sitting over on the side, wearing sunglasses, seemingly unengaged, but interested enough to show up during office hours. Don’t miss that fern peeking out from behind all those desks in front of it. Be careful: that chile plant in the second row that looks innocuous until you call on it. And who in the world expected to see a Venus flytrap in college? It’s going to need individualized instruction. This is your garden—all plants present waiting for the help they need to grow.
Cannady, M. A., Greenwald, E., & Harris, K. N. (2014). Problematizing the STEM pipeline metaphor: Is the STEM pipeline metaphor serving our students and the STEM workforce? Science Education, 98(3), 443–460. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21108
Metcalf, H. 2010. Stuck in the pipeline: A critical review of STEM workforce literature. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(2). https://escholarship.org/content/qt6zf09176/qt6zf09176.pdf
Rebecca Varney is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alabama. Kaleb Heinrich, DA, is an assistant professor of biology education at the University of Alabama.