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Evolving from an Education Pipeline to an “Education Swirl”

The STEMtech Learn and Earn State Summit kicked off on November 1st 2010 with “The Morning Buzz” panel of STEM Network State representatives discussing how to improve STEM education. During the panel, participants addressed models of how students move through school and into the workforce—and argued for a move away from the traditional education pipeline model. The panel participants discussed how the education pipeline model assumes that optimally, students start in K-12 education, graduate from high school, and enteimage.jpgr and complete postsecondary education before they move into the workforce. When students enter the workforce before completing their postsecondary degree, they end up in the category “withdrawn” from the education system all together.

Mark Milliron, the panel’s moderator, proposed an alternative model for conceptualizing today’s entrance and exit points for education and the workforce, wherein the modern student’s path would be better described as a swirl than a pipeline. In the education swirl, students may enter and exit the education system and the workforce throughout the course of their lives, often balancing financial and family obligations with long-term goals to develop marketable skills. In this model, students may work while attending school, and in some cases, earn postsecondary credit for their work experience, as with Learn and Earn Programs.

Panelist Carolyn Landel, project director of the Washington STEM initiative, called for the need to create networks of key stakeholders in STEM education to support the swirling pathways that students chart through education. She discussed how K-12, postsecondary institutions, industry and other key stakeholders can collaboratively develop STEM Learn and Earn programs in which students can take courses part time while also working in paid positions related to their field of study.


Overall, the discussion underscored the need for institutions to center their efforts on adapting to the reality of students’ swirling education pathways by offering more flexible programs. Based on your experience, would students fare better or worse if postsecondary education adapted to swirling education pathways? Would such an approach supplant institutional resources focused on supporting students in studying full-time?