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Stop passing the buck: Literacy for STEM educators

We all know the importance of reading and writing; after all, they are two of the three R’s. The challenge of finding ways to incorporate reading and writing within STEM becomes less daunting when one collaborates with colleagues, selects appropriate materials, and assigns tightly constrained tasks. While teaching reading and writing is not something STEM educators are certified to do, it is incumbent on all educators to produce youth literate enough to function in a global and technically challenging environment.

Reading that resonates

We know that tweens and teens enjoy reading about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), especially if the topic relates to their experiences and the presentation engages young minds. I’ve watched kids wrestle over the latest edition of National Geographic Kids (estimated readership 4.5 million) and the Guinness Book of World Records.

Yet, as a science teacher I shied away from assigning my students reading assignments either in or out of class. I have a bag full of excuses at the ready: I’m not certified to teach reading and writing. Textbooks are dull. Books feel lifeless relative to today’s multimedia resources, and texts flood students with new vocabulary rather than engage them about ideas. In addition, I dreaded the task of managing textbooks and the inevitable loss of one or two throughout the year.

To ensure that reading resonates with students, it must expand and enhance the classroom experience. My compromise was to incorporate reading within the context of the course and classroom activity rather than have it stand-alone. In one unit on botany, I had my students compare the results of their laboratory work to a website on flowering plants created by students from another school. By selecting a student-created website, I ensured reading and content level appropriate for my students while also using an author to whom my students could readily relate. I also found short plays, written for students about scientific concepts. By having students read and act out the plays, they gained an opportunity to practice literacy skills in the context of learning scientific concepts.

Reading resources for technical subjects continue to improve. For example, Igor Gamow recently revived his father’s famous character, Mr. Tompkins. The elder Gamow, George, recognized for developing the Big Bang Theory, also wrote a series of popular books on science featuring the bank clerk, Mr. Tompkins, who interacts with famous scientists throughout history. The modern incarnation of Tompkins appears as a series of graphic novels and comic books accompanied by multimedia resources and teacher’s guides. Einstein and Mr. Tompkins discuss the theory of relativity. Curie and Tompkins delve into radioactivity.

Writing is thinking

It took me a long time to learn to write well. At some point, it dawned on me that my ability to write clearly reflected my ability to understand and organize my own thoughts. I’m not sure that we, teachers and society, explain to students that writing is an outward expression of an internal dialogue.

Once I realized that the ability to write well reflected the ability to understand and organize one’s thoughts, I became dedicated to teaching my students to write well. Each year, my students engaged in a research project designed with two products as the outcome. One product, a poster presentation, allowed students to visually represent their knowledge and understanding. The second, a 250-word essay, allowed students to expand upon the poster contents. I limited the essay to 250 words for several reasons. The word count provides enough of a challenge for most middle-school students without being overwhelming or too short to demonstrate understanding of the topic. Strong writing, like any skill, takes time to build and develop; pushing too hard, too soon leads to failure and frustration. Plus, with 150 students to support, I wanted to ensure I had the time to attend to every essay.

I took several steps to ensure successful writing products. First, I alerted the language arts teacher of my intentions, and we scheduled days when students would work on the development of their essays for science while in language arts class. My colleagues actually appreciated this opportunity as it gave them the chance to address writing nonfiction and saved them a few days of lesson planning, too! Next, I took time during science to address the key research questions every student was required to answer at a minimum. We discussed each question generally, and I asked students to volunteer what they specifically had learned from their research. Following the general discussion, students used graphic organizers and other pre-writing strategies to draft brief answers to each question. Students then took their drafts to the language arts teacher for review and expansion. At each stage of the writing process, students were given credit for completing work on time. Only at the end of the project were essays graded according to a final assessment rubric.

Douglas F. Haller is the principal of Haller STEM Education Consulting. Haller is an education consultant specializing in strategic planning and market analysis to drive design, development and sales of niche education products for clients in the for-profit, nonprofit, and education and public outreach fields. His creative approach is based on years of practical experience as an educator, instructional designer and education consultant. Check out his blog, STEM Education: Inspire, Engage, Educate.