John Sener of Sener Knowledge LLC, an external evaluator for over a dozen ATE and other NSF grants over the past eight years, discusses how to move beyond the “pipeline” metaphor for describing technician education and adopt the more useful “interstate” metaphor instead.

Evaluate an NSF ATE center or project long enough, and eventually you’ll hear the word pipeline—as in, “closing gaps in the education pipeline,” or “increasing the cybersecurity workforce pipeline.” The pipeline metaphor describes the ATE technician education process pretty well to some extent:

A) Students proceed through an NSF-funded ATE program “pipeline” in well-defined cohorts on a relatively uniform timetable.

B) The pipeline feeds program graduates to employers, often in a relatively limited number of local or regional employers in the related field.

C) Evaluators aim to document that B is the result of A.

However, I have long been dissatisfied with the pipeline metaphor because it traps its users into limited thinking, making it easy to overlook important sources of project impact. As noted in my book, The Seven Futures of American Education, many students exhibit characteristics that reflect a greater degree of choice than the pipeline metaphor implies: “stopouts” who drop in and out of school, “swirlers” who attend multiple institutions, “stay-longers” who exceed the prescribed time period for program completion. I’ve found that an interstate highway is a much more useful metaphor to understand learners who:

  • Choose among multiple entry and exit points rather than following a prescribed path;
  • Travel at different speeds and on different schedules through their education programs;
  • Sometimes seek alternate routes and multiple destinations during their educational journeys.

Here are some ways I use the interstate metaphor to find sources of project impact.

Pipelines move their cargo from Point A to Point B, while interstates support two-way traffic; look in both directions for indications of project impact, for instance:

  • Career changers with bachelor’s or graduate degrees returning to community colleges for additional training or certification
  • Four-year students mentoring two-year students to prepare for student competitions
  • Community college students mentoring high school students or serving as judges for high school student competitions
  • Business and industry practitioners getting involved on community college curriculum advisory boards or forming three-way partnerships with faculty and students to enhance the learning/assessment experience or create knowledge collaboratively

Expand the realm of acceptable outcomes. ATE projects have significant impact beyond program completion or employment placement. Students sometimes find jobs before completing a program. Alternatively, intermediate outcomes—such as certificate or multiple course completion—may also indicate progress, especially for students returning to college to enhance their existing professional prospects.

Look in other places for impact. Extracurricular activities, such as student competitions, clubs, or organizations, are one good place to look. I sometimes think of such places as “toll booths”—activities where impact can be measured more easily as students pass through them.

About the Authors

John Sener

John Sener box with arrow

CKO of Sener Knowledge, LLC

John Sener is the founder/CKO of Sener Knowledge LLC, a consulting practice which co-creates knowledge leading to positive change in education, learning, and society. He is the author of the book The Seven Futures of American Education: Improving Learning & Teaching in a Screen-Captured World (CreateSpace, 2012). He has extensive experience with evaluating NSF ATE grants. He has served as the external evaluator for the National CyberWatch Center since 2006; he serves as the external evaluator for the CyberWatch West regional cybersecurity ATE center, as the co-evaluator for the DeafTEC ATE National Center, and he has also evaluated several other ATE and other NSF projects. His career in education and training over the past 35 years is a unique mixture of broad practical experience and academic expertise. He holds a M.S. degree in Education from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Psychology from Oberlin College.

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