What do Albert Einstein, I.M Pei, and Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google) all have in common? Not only has each of these leaders made invaluable contributions to STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math)—and to greater society—they also learned English as a second language.
More and more schools, non-profits, science museums, and community-based organizations across the country are exploring the connections between STEM and language learning. The hands-on, engaging activities at the core of most STEM curricula—whether in the classroom, in an afterschool program, or at a science center—create a natural environment for language development. Experiential learning makes vocabulary come to life, and helps our young people get exposure to the academic variety of English necessary for success in school, college, and careers; the kinds of demanding rhetorical skills and specialized words and phrases they might not be using at home or when they are hanging out with friends. The group work and team-oriented activities commonly incorporated into STEM lessons and projects are a powerful base to provide learners with additional time to speak and listen to English in a low pressure setting.
The San Francisco-based Exploratorium science center and the Sonoma Valley Unified School district were awarded a Federal Investing in Innovation, or I3 grant to create just such opportunities for ELs. The project will teach language skills to EL students using a curriculum that is rooted in inquiry-based scientific approaches. For example, students make a hypothesis about what foods snails prefer to eat, then enlist some of the hungry creatures to test their ideas, make observations, and gather evidence for class presentations (no mollusks were harmed during the making of this lesson). ELs’ struggles to learn language and academic content at the same time are not double the work, but double the learning, engagement, and fun.
I hope to see more language classrooms become science laboratories, and vice versa. According to the US Department of Labor, Latinos and other minorities are underrepresented and underprepared for STEM careers. Our children and young people need strong speaking and literacy skills to be successful, even in these more technical fields. Chemists, marine biologists, astrophysicists—even software engineers at Microsoft or Yahoo—commonly work in team settings where oral skills such as explaining, presenting, defending logic, and influencing peers with complex ideas are critical. More and more large tech companies hire contractors and vendors from overseas, making strong multilingual and multicultural skills a sought-after ability for US job candidates, in addition to computer savvy. As Einstein pointed out, it’s all relative.