The U.S. government’s recent proposed education reorganization plan was the catalyst for my thinking about our education system holistically and systemically. Why is science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education important? What components make up the system? Who are the important stakeholders and how do we engage all of them? 

For years, education and work force policies have focused on the idea of an education pipeline that depicts the flow of students along an academic path from elementary to graduate school. Many students drop out of the pipeline during high school as well as college, especially young women and various minority groups. I agree with the crisis that our policymakers have identified: We’re not producing enough STEM professionals and technicians to compete in a global economy or solve our major challenges, such as the collapse of biodiversity, the world’s growing energy needs, access to clean water and climate change. But is the pipeline model really appropriate?

As a physicist whose career has spanned conducting science research, leading a national research institute and developing STEM education programs, I believe that I can see the problems of STEM education from two points of view: as a STEM professional concerned with work force needs and as a STEM educator with experience of effective STEM education and public outreach. From my vantage point, the idea of a pipeline is the wrong model for envisioning an effective STEM education system.

By relying on the STEM pipeline model, policymakers limit our options for solving the STEM crisis. 

First, a pipeline suggests that a student enters the formal education system at age 5 and flows through it in isolation from outside influences until it’s time to be delivered as a young adult into a profession. But that’s not reality, nor should we want it to be.

Formal education occurs within a system that includes students, families, schools and communities. I think of this as a “STEM education ecosystem.” Research shows that when families, schools and communities work together to support learning, students perform better academically and stay in school longer. In fact, a family’s attitude that learning is a positive, even joyful, experience is the single most important predictor of student success. That’s why family and community must be included as critical components of any effective education system. Sadly, they are often left out of the equation.

Families can support a child’s emerging identity as a STEM learner in many ways. A parent can find out-of-school programs, such as a robotics club. Also, both parent and child can participate in STEM activities, such as joining a citizen science project that collects data. In these cases, the parent’s message is clear: What you are doing is important and I’m happy and supportive of your interests. Community involvement can come through public institutions, such as science centers, zoos, aquariums and public libraries along with private organizations and corporations. Community resources provide learning opportunities outside of school as well as support and/or sponsorship of students’ STEM activities. 

Consider a situation in which a girl is interested in STEM but would be the first person in her family to attend college. Science centers, after-school programs and public libraries can provide her with enriching STEM experiences that support her interests. But just as important, these organizations can also provide the outreach that helps her parents support and participate in her STEM interests.  

Research also shows that most science is learned outside of school in a variety of informal, or free-choice, education programs. The field of informal STEM education has benefited from the experience of thousands of programs bringing STEM activities directly to the public. Every day, children’s museums and science centers offer STEM exhibitions and programs that are imaginative, engaging, age appropriate, thought provoking and aligned with national education standards. Public libraries are also beginning to offer STEM exhibitions and programs to their patrons, and many are partnering with science museums to establish STEM learning centers for their teenage patrons. Across the country, science and engineering festivals are engaging adults and children with STEM activities and celebrating STEM achievements. NASA mission education programs have supported the development of outreach toolkits for hundreds of amateur astronomy clubs like the Night Sky Network. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is supporting a program that engages rural 4-H teens in basic and applied bioscience research. These examples illustrate that a vibrant, whole community approach to STEM learning is the right direction to take. 

Another problem with the pipeline model is that instead of absorbing resources from outside of the classroom to support formal education, our actual STEM pipeline leaks students, especially in high school, a trend that continues in college. We all lose when students leak out of the STEM pipeline and take their creative potential with them.

The proposed consolidation of U.S. investments in education and outreach into three institutions (the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution) is a top-down approach that does not serve our fragile education ecosystem very well. The current plan, while simple and efficient, will result in many unintended consequences such as the loss of critical informal STEM education programs and projects. This plan was not based upon any community input or debate. Education and outreach activities at STEM research organizations (federal agencies like NASA, NIH and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as those at universities and nonprofit organizations) are under threat, resulting in the disconnection between federal support of research and the public understanding of STEM. 

When you consider the daunting challenges we face in the 21st century, you realize that we need all of the awareness, talent and creativity we can muster. Our STEM education system must do better. We can’t ignore the critical roles that families and communities play. We need a federal policy that abandons the outmoded pipeline model and supports the entire STEM education ecosystem. It requires a bold national policy with the breadth and depth necessary to support environments of STEM learning in our families, schools and communities. Let’s begin the dialogue now.

Paul Dusenbery is executive director of the Space Science Institute and director of its National Center for Interactive Learning.