English Instruction through STEM Subjects

By guest blogger Dan Presson


From americasquarterly.org

From americasquarterly.org

Recently David Fay posted an article titled “Making the Most of 300 Hours.” In his article David outlined several recommendations for language instruction, including making a connection to other subjects, subjects such as science and Mathematics. Science and Mathematics are often referred to as STEM (Science – Technology – Engineering – Mathematics) fields. The importance of connecting STEM subjects to language instruction cannot be overemphasized.

Language instruction is best done when using the 5 C’s of language acquisition – Connections, Communication, Culture, Comparisons, and Communities. Using STEM subjects is an effective way of utilizing the five C’s. Science, technology, and engineering connect the learner to the natural world, focus on communications, emphasize the universal culture and communities of these disciplines, and require comparisons.  The hands-on experiential learning inherent in STEM disciplines makes vocabulary meaningful, connecting the learner to the natural world.

The Spanish speaker has an advantage with STEM subjects in English.  There are over 600,000 words in the English language, about a third of which are Latin in origin, and thus usually have equivalents in Spanish.  STEM disciplines from A to Z — aerospace, computer and electronic technology, civil and bio-engineering, medical, and zoology — contain tens of thousands of easily recognizable words.  Also, STEM field texts are typically written in a more formal academic style and thus support a learner’s use of academic language.  This more formal register is often overlooked in schools.

If the learner is within a STEM discipline, the language instruction can be easier

from navy.com

from navy.com

because the learner understands STEM concepts and already has extensive STEM vocabulary. Since STEM fields focus largely on the process of observation, note-taking, and drawing conclusions, less weight is placed on right or wrong answers.  This takes considerable stress away from the student.

Most importantly, EFL teachers need not feel burdened by being experts in the STEM fields.  The ELF teacher’s job is to teach the language, not the subject.  Exploring the natural world should become a collaborative effort.  Not only does a teacher team up with the students, but also with science and math teachers in order to synchronize the effort.  One added benefit is that the content teachers can practice their English as well.

Overall, STEM content should be seen as an additional resource for the ESL teacher, and a very effective one at that.

To Iquitos… and beyond!

By Daniel Murcia, Pereira, Colombia

Fifteen days have passed and I am still recalling places, food, and people that IDaniel watching Yagua chief met in the great journey to Iquitos, Perú this year. To my surprise, I was not the only one who was uncertain about our future in Perú.  David Fay kicked off the presentation by asking, “So why are you here? You might be questioning…” All of the participants, many of whom I had not had the chance to interact with before the workshop, breathed a sigh of relief. We finally realised that the journey was the result of great planning and teamwork by several institutions that wanted to provide an extension to the E-Teacher online course on Critical Thinking that we took with the University of Oregon for 10 weeks.

Some teachers had to travel for almost a day to get there, and no matter how depleted of strength or energy they were, we were part of a group of curious teachers who were eager to learn, experience, and explore new trends in order to become more professional. Teachers felt unique; and this shared feeling from all the different members of the Andean community – Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Perú – was sparked as the workshop progressed, because in these particular sessions, we were encouraged to use teamwork as the essential tool for knowledge construction.

???????????????????????????????And, indeed, many lovely and funny things happened, such as the use of English as the standard language. Other than English being the language of instruction, we used it in order to clarify various topics.  Although we all belonged to the same Andean community and therefore had the same native language (Spanish), there are regional differences that misled our conversations.  I overheard many groups explaining the meaning of Spanish words and expressions in English so as to be understood.  This brought a rich environment of sharing and cultural growth.

As for my case, I was interviewed by my curious peers at the university about my experience in Perú, and they have asked me to arrange a teacher study group on Critical Thinking and on how they can adapt it to their instructional design. I am very enthusiastic about spreading what I have learned and apply it to my teaching, from which I will surely share what new insight might spark.

It was a marvellous experience, meeting different kinds of teachers, presenting on issues that we have been reflecting on for several weeks, and growing as humans and educators. Our instructor Deanna Hochstein closed the ELT upgrade event in Iquitos with a plenary called “To infinity …and beyond” where she mentioned the necessity of teachers to explore new frontiers so as to improve their performance and enrich their practice.  That is exactly what we did with RELO Andes and the university of Oregon,  where we worked as a team to think critically and grow as professional educators of the English language.

Peruvian Amazon provides setting for a blended approach to professional development

by David Fay

Workshop TeamVicky and Fabricio, from Ibarra and Esmeraldas, Ecuador, respectively, shared a skewer of suri, a juicy jungle worm considered a delicacy in the Peruvian Amazon.  Jey, from Valencia, Venezuela, struggled to overcome his fear of snakes by holding a two meter boa.  And Daniel, from Pereira, Colombia, danced with a native Bora family while Patricia from La Paz took photos.  They had all just finished conducting workshops that introduced hands-on applications of Critical and Creative Thinking to a group of 100 current and future English teachers at the Universidad Nacional de la Amazonía Peruana in Iquitos, Peru and were keen on absorbing as much as possible of the local culture.

They were part of a group of 21 English instructors, most of who are full-time instructors at  programs preparing the future generation of English teachers in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela.  Before their own presentations, from September 11 to 13, they took part in three intensive days ofSpecialist Deanna Hochstein with group workshops conducted by Deanna Hochstein and Sherie Henderson, professors at the University of Oregon.  And before the busy four days in Iquitos, all 21 were part of a group of 42 who had received scholarships for a special Andean offering of the popular “Critical Thinking” E-Teacher course offered by UO, through the U.S. Department of State.  In short, all participants knew of one another from having studied together online for about 10 weeks, from late June through the end of August 2013.

Candidates were chosen through US Embassy connections with pre-service institutions – universities preparing the future generation of English teachers – and in Venezuela, through one of the world’s most active professional associations for English teachers, VenTESOL. During the online course they were introduced to an overview of Critical Thinking concepts, from Bloom’s Taxonomy to intellectual traits such as intellectual humility, courage, empathy, autonomy, and integrity.  With the guidance of the course’s two instructors, Agnieszka Alboszta and Sherie Henderson, they designed lesson plans based on these concepts.

Isabel Pantoja, from the National University in Cajamarca, PeruThe face-to-face component aimed to provide a chance for professional friendships to blossom, to further the 10 weeks of hard work by adding specific activities to the lesson plans, and to help turn the participants into professional development facilitators.  Fellows Debra Burgess and Ryan Brux, both based in Peru, gave the participants a “how to facilitate” overview and guided groups preparing their presentations.  As of this posting, participants have returned to their institutions, three of which are hosting follow-up visits by Deanna and Sherie, where the participants are co-facilitating workshops with staff and students.  All will continue finding ways of applying the new ideas to their classes, sharing practices with colleagues, and facilitating workshops at events in their communities.