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STEM Is Not Only a Course, It’s an Experience

Darlyne de Haan argues that we must be explicitly intentional to open up the opportunity of STEM to English learners

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is not a single course. First, let me explain what STEM stands for. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. You may also see STEAM, which is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. More STEM opportunities are needed for multilingual learners (MLLs) for several reasons—primarily because students need access to project-based learning with a focus on STEM, and the field needs linguistically diverse professionals.

Regardless of which one you are familiar with, both suffer from low participation of MLLs. Not due to low interest, but low opportunity. They suffer from low enrollment due to a belief on the part of school district leaders and/or the education community policy makers that a high level of English proficiency is a requirement for success. STEM/STEAM is not a course, it is a way of thinking. It is problem solving and creative thinking. Having students simply make a volcano is not STEM. That is a science activity. Having students design a paper airplane that can hold a certain weight of cargo, that can go the furthest, is STEM. It is STEM because the students must draw on previous knowledge in multiple disciplines, design the aircraft, decide which materials are the best, and work as a collaborative group (21st-century skills), use the engineering design process, problem solve, and troubleshoot. That is what makes this STEM/STEAM. All students have this ability to problem solve and think critically, regardless of language level, language spoken, or language proficiency. If the curriculums are intentional in their design of all-inclusive STEM/STEAM programs, all students will be able to participate. If teachers are provided intentional and targeted professional development and supports on teaching STEM/STEAM designed for English learners, all students will be able to participate. Intentionality is the missing link in creating an equitable education for all students. As I write this article, I am in Singapore for 14 days as a Fulbright Scholar. We have spent the first week meeting with their Ministry of Education (MOE) and learning about the history of Singapore, their philosophy, and their culture. Next week, we will visit some of their schools to observe instruction. Excitement is in the air among myself and the other Fulbright participants with whom I am experiencing this journey. If I had to pick just one word that has resonated in what has been described as their instructional approach, it would be intentionality. Singapore’s Ministry of Education is intentional in every aspect of what they do, plan, and execute. To ensure that all students are provided the opportunity to be involved in STEM/STEAM programs, we must also be explicitly intentional with our actions, planning, and execution for all students in every community. We must be intentional in the professional development that districts provide the general education teacher on teaching MLLs and other underrepresented populations; we must be intentional in the supports we give our teachers to ensure the standards-based curriculum is implemented with fidelity; we must be intentional in the resources we select that support the direction of our destination; and we must be intentional in valuing our teachers so they feel safe in taking the risks needed to ensure that equity happens in the classroom. We must remember that we as educators are only here for a season. Our careers are short in relation to the impact we can have on the students we serve. It is our responsibility to support those whom we lead because they will lay the foundation for those who follow.

Digging Deeper: The STEM/STEAM Challenges
It is understood that teaching STEM/ STEAM to MLLs can be complex because STEM discourse can be very dense for even the native English speakers. Teachers should understand that a student’s ability to speak English should not be confused with the student’s ability to think scientifically or their cognitive ability. What needs to be at the forefront is understanding and embracing the fact that the science classroom can be particularly beneficial to MLLs because the STEM/STEAM classroom provides opportunities for the students to read, write, listen, and speak in English and their native languages.

Opportunities to think and speak in their home languages can be the most impactful. Allowing students to gain understanding in their home languages helps with the transfer of understanding in the new language—in this case, English. We also cannot undervalue how all students have “funds of knowledge” that can bring richness and new perspectives to the STEM task or challenge assigned. Funds of knowledge are the knowledge and expertise that students and their family members have because of their roles in their families, communities, and cultures. This collaboration creates a sense of belonging, as the students’ contributions to the subject matter are valued for the merit of their ideas, regardless of social status or linguistic accuracy. Students must be allowed opportunities to actively construct their own science understanding and to participate in disciplinary practices regardless of their levels of language proficiency. The STEM classroom is the most natural place for this to occur. For this reason, STEM is not a course, it is a natural opportunity for students to do what they do best—think, be creative, and become valuable members of their classroom environment. STEM is a confidence builder when created with intention to accomplish those goals.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) engage students by using “knowledge-in-use,” where students apply their knowledge for a particular purpose.1 It is important to remember that as MLLs begin learning English, their English will be less sophisticated—but this does not imply that they cannot contribute to the class discussion. Underrepresented populations who have not had the opportunities to engage in this type of setting will also struggle in the beginning with class discussions, but like with MLLs, their sophistication will develop over time. As MLLs and underrepresented populations develop deeper and more sophisticated science understanding, their language will become more sophisticated, too. For this to occur, both populations of students must be provided the opportunity to practice listening, speaking, writing, and reading in a variety of modalities: one to one, small groups, peer grouping, the whole group, speaking with the teacher, and creating reports. Each modality requires a different set of vocabulary terms and level of language sophistication. When working one on one or in small groups, a student can point to words or objects to help explain what they did or are speaking about. This allows for less specificity in word choice. When presenting to the class or writing reports, vocabulary and word choice become more targeted and specific. Keep this in mind when giving assignments to MLLs because their level of language proficiency should guide the tasks and the criteria with which you will grade them.

Why This Matters
Unfortunately, most MLLs who live in low-resourced communities have pervasive structural barriers to participating in out-of-school STEM opportunities, such as STEM summer camps, for some of the following reasons:

  • Inability to pay program registration fees
  • Lack of prerequisite knowledge
  • Competitive application processes
  • Inability to demonstrate a pre-existing interest in science
  • Poor literacy skills
  • Lack of transportation
  • A dearth of accessible opportunities
  • (Lyon, 2010)

According to Breiseth (2015), “Nearly 60% of [MLLs] nationwide are from low-income families,” which means that many MLLs will not have STEM exposure outside of school. This means that schools become the sole source of these students’ exposure to STEM activities and classes. If schools are not providing these opportunities for students from low-income communities, including MLLs, to partake in STEM/STEAM classes, when will they get exposure?

What Can We Do?
We must turn to providing teachers with embedded professional development on topics such as understanding the language acquisition process and critical introspection of teacher beliefs about MLLs and linguistic diversity. According Cooper’s (2020) And Justice for ELs, to create a catalyst for change, school leaders must first confront their own biases and knowledge gaps about minority student populations.
If we do not do these things, our education system will continue to imperil MLLs’ academic success, as well as our underrepresented populations’, and emphasize what they cannot do rather than what they already do well, thereby stifling their learning as a result of low expectations (de Haan, 2019).

We need to begin to look at the science curriculum of our youngest of learners, because that is where the STEM pipeline begins. Teachers and school leaders need to reflect on their perception of their students because it impacts their approach to teaching them. Such reflection is necessary before school leaders will be able to create and sustain inclusive school communities for all students, especially MLLs (Cooper, 2020). Districts need to become intentional in their actions, from curriculum, to providing teaching staff with ongoing embedded professional development on how to successfully teach this growing population, to follow-up. It is not how well the curriculum is written, nor just how well it is implemented. It is the how districts build the capacity of their school leaders by establishing a shared vision, build the capacity of student development teams and key personnel by equipping them to plan and implement, and build the capacity of their teachers and specialists by equipping them with the needed resources and professional development. It all begins with a mindset change. When this happens, that well-written curriculum will be implemented with fidelity.



Darlyne de Haan, EdD, is an educator and educational consultant, a former forensic scientist and chemist with more than 20 years of experience in STEM, and a blogger for TESOL International. She is a recipient of and participant in the coveted Fulbright Administrator Program for Fulbright Leaders for Global Schools, a program sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. A strong advocate for changing the face of STEM to reflect the population, Dr. de Haan is fluent in English and proficient in Spanish and Papiamentu.

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