As STEM/STEAM educators, we want to help students think and work like engineers and computational thinkers. But that involves more than introducing students to the design process or teaching them about technology tools. The work of engineers also involves collaboration, communication, global citizenship and literacy skills.
During my tenure as supervisor of the Technology and Engineering Education (TEE) program at Richmond Public Schools (RPS), improving the literacy – reading and writing skills – of our students was just as important as developing their technical literacy. That’s because even in today’s high-tech workforce, the old-world skills of reading and writing are vital for every career and virtually every aspect of daily life.
In this regard, I recommend that STEM teachers employ the following four strategies for helping their learners improve their literacy skills.
1. Organize literacy content in STEM lessons
Reading (nonfiction informational text), writing, speaking and listening are reoccurring strands in the English language arts (ELL) Common Core State Standards that need to be woven into all K-12 content, including STEM subjects. These literacy standards are broad and have many learning objectives that educators should organize, introduce and revisit as needed with students during every design challenge.
When planning your STEM lessons, identify the specific ELA skills you want to reinforce, including informational writing, correct grammar, editing, sentence structure, paragraphing, applying knowledge of appropriate reference, speaking and listening, and critical thinking.
If you focus on the areas your students struggle with most, they will be able to improve their literacy skills over time through consistent practice.
Reading informational text is an integral part of the jigsaw protocol as it helps students unpack content and transfer it in their own words. The more students do this, the better they become at critical reading and writing. If they can’t read critically, then they won’t be able to write critically and vice versa.
Students will read and analyze text (annotating, highlighting, etc.) and share their learning with their expert team.
The expert team should then create a synthesis in the form of an artifact. Students who struggle with writing can use graphics or images that they designed to contribute to the work of the expert team.
Have all expert teams return to a heterogeneous group to present and discuss their learning.
3. Document processes in an engineering design journal
When working on STEM projects, it's essential for your students to document every step of the design process. Doing so consistently will develop their expertise in reading, writing and expressing their ideas through drawing and sketching. Therefore, be sure to include frequent opportunities for students to document in their engineering design notebook (or journal).
Also, by having them use a rubric, they’ll be able to assess their own performances of the writing portions of the design process to develop mastery at their own pace.
Students must be able to articulate their work and interact with an audience, and by having them present frequently, they will significantly improve their speaking and listening literacy skills over time.
You can start by structuring STEM lessons and activities within a Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit, where students present research and findings to the class. This not only helps them polish their speaking skills but also allows them to practice using technology tools, organize multimedia and cite sources. Learning to effectively describe their work and interacting well with audiences prepares them for college and careers.
For assessing students on their presentations skills, BIE has created rubrics for all grade levels that are aligned to CCSS ELA standards and other standards too.
There is more to presentations than mastering speaking and listening skills, however, and educators should consider offering diverse opportunities to allow students to share their learning with an authentic audience outside the classroom.
By using the classification of the different objectives and skills found in Bloom’s Taxonomy, educators can be strategic about helping students plan diverse ways in which they can combine their literacy and other content knowledge into meaningful products that will make their transfer pop!
Remember, learning is not a spectator sport! Our students won’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, and many become discouraged when they don’t achieve as well as others or see immediate progress in their literacy skills. It is therefore important for us to always model what we want to see in them and that includes us becoming a learning partner. When educators begin to learn alongside their students actively, then the term lifelong learning is unfolded and better defined for young learners!
Jorge Valenzuela is an educational coach and a graduate teaching assistant at Old Dominion University. He is also the lead coach for Lifelong Learning Defined, Inc.,a national faculty of the Buck Institute for Education, a national teacher effectiveness coach with the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA) and part of the Lead Educator program for littleBits. You can connect with Jorge on Twitter @JorgeDoesPBL to continue the conversation.