STEM in ELT: 3 Ways to Seal the Leaky STEM Pipeline

The “Leaky Pipeline” is a metaphor for students’ disproportionate exit from participation in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content area throughout K–12 school and college, resulting in their underrepresentation in STEM careers. Middle and high school English learners (ELs), students of color, and girls—particularly those from low-income families and schools—are disproportionately excluded or dropped from the STEM pipeline at formative moments in their academic trajectories (Lyon et al., 2012).

In this blog series, over the next year, I will discuss how to seal the Leaky STEM Pipeline and steps to increase the low number of ELs entering the STEM fields.

Here are three ways of sealing the Leaky Pipeline:

1. Provide Authentic STEM Experiences That Connect to Students’ Lives

When the work that students encounter is authentic, personally meaningful, and facilitated by caring adults, students will become more engaged. This is true for STEM courses as well. Create assignments or projects that connect to the student’s world. Research where your ELs are from and adapt lessons accordingly. For example, if you are teaching about the center of gravity and you have students from Italy, use the Leaning Tower of Pisa as your example. You can provide visuals for the class and give the student the opportunity to share their knowledge about the structure, if applicable.

There is a growing body of research that shows that students who do not find personal meaning or relevance in a STEM-related field by their middle school years will not pursue anything in that field beyond what is required in school (Lyon et al., 2012). We must provide a more global view of the world in our teaching.

2. Understand Language Proficiency vs. Academic Ability

Hearing and talking are necessary for acquiring listening and speaking skills. To delay content instruction because of a lack of language proficiency will not only hinder students from advancing through the grade levels (TESOL, 2018), but will also limit their exposure to rigorous courses required to follow a STEM pathway. A student’s lack of language proficiency does not mean they lack the ability to learn, understand, or contribute to the academic content.

STEM courses should provide students opportunities to collaborate, to work in pairs, and to interact in small groups. These interactions help build language development because they allow students an opportunity practice their new language while simultaneously having the opportunity to acquire grade-level academic English (TESOL, 2018).

3. Understand Language Acquisition and the Stages of Culture Shock

 Teachers should understand the language acquisition process:

  • Stage 1: Preproduction
  • Stage 2: Early production
  • Stage 3: Speech emergence
  • Stage 4: Intermediate fluency
  • Stage 5: Advanced fluency

Though teachers cannot change the order of the steps in the process, they can affect how long the students remain at each stage by doing the following:

  1. Provide a classroom environment where students feel secure, because anxiety can impede student learning.
  2. Understand the Five Stages of Culture Shock so that they can respond accordingly to the student’s actions in the classroom and provide appropriate measures that are most beneficial for that student as they assimilate to their new life.

Understanding these two crucial areas can reduce your confusion between a possible learning disability and the normal progression of learning another language and being immersed in a new culture. Such a misunderstanding can have a hugely negative impact on ELs getting on the STEM pathway.

In conclusion, the Leaky STEM Pipeline can be sealed when we as educators take the time to understand the language acquisition process and recognize the stages of culture shock.  This, in conjunction with creating a warm classroom environment with differentiated lessons, according to language proficiency, are crucial to ELs willing to take risks in their education and to develop a sense of belonging.

What steps have you taken to address the Leaky Pipeline in your teaching? Please share in the comments, below.


Lyon, G. H., Jafri, J., & St. Louis, K. (2012, Fall). Beyond the pipeline: STEM pathways for youth development. Afterschool Matters. National Institute on Out-of-School Time.

TESOL International Association (TESOL). (2018). The 6 principles for exemplary teaching of English learners.

About Darlyne de Haan

Darlyne de Haan
Dr. Darlyne de Haan, a former forensic scientist and chemist with more than 20 years of experience in STEM, is a recipient and participant of the coveted Fulbright Administrator Program for Fulbright Leaders for Global Schools, a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She is a strong advocate for changing the face of STEM to reflect the population and is fluent in English and advanced in Spanish.
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