Beyond the Leaky Pipeline: Developmental Pathways that Lead College Students to Join or Return to STEM Majors


  • Jue Wu Northwestern University
  • David Uttal Northwestern University



development, higher education, STEM education


STEM education researchers often invoke the “Leaky Pipeline” metaphor (National Research Council, 1986) when explaining why so many students do not persist in STEM. This metaphor envisions the supply of potential workers as a pipeline.  Students “drip out” (leave STEM) of the pipeline from preschool through college. However, this metaphor does not adequately reflect the fluidity and multi-directionality of students’ decisions about their college majors.  For example, some students join STEM after leaving another (non-STEM) major, and others add STEM as a second major. Increasing the number of students who join STEM could contribute substantially to addressing the STEM shortage. We used the term STEM joiners to refer to these students. We conducted a qualitative study of 22 college STEM joiners to explore the developmental trajectories and motivations of these STEM joiners. Data was collected through semi-structured clinical interviews with each individual and was analyzed by an iterative, grounded coding processes to derive themes and categories. We found that the decision to join STEM after declaring another major was often motivated by a desire to return to original interests in STEM. Early college STEM courses, supportive STEM environments, and mentoring experiences were critical in students’ joining decisions. The results suggest ways in which STEM joining could be increased, which could lead to an increase in the number of STEM majors.


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How to Cite

Wu, J., & Uttal, D. (2020). Beyond the Leaky Pipeline: Developmental Pathways that Lead College Students to Join or Return to STEM Majors. Journal of Research in STEM Education, 6(2), 64–90.