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Embed literacy into STEM projects

By Jorge Valenzuela
May 1, 2018
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STEM is nothing without literacy.

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.

A great tool to help organize STEM (or any other) projects into manageable parts (i.e., aligning to standards, technology tools, scaffolding, assessment, etc.) is the Project Design: Overview and Student Learning Guide by the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). If you are using a STEM or computer science (CS) curriculum (i.e., Engineering by Design, PLTW,, etc.), you can also use the tool to organize formal and informal assessments and differentiate instructional tools and strategies in conjunction with the STEM activities you plan to use.

2. Use the jigsaw protocol

Jigsaws are an effective strategy for helping learners chunk large topics of knowledge into smaller parts, improve reading and writing skills (particularly their ability to analyze and synthesize information), create artifacts (poster board, presentation slides, digital content, etc.), hone presentation skills and practice interactions/collaboration with peers.

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.

To start,  have students do jigsaws on the engineering design process, the ISTE Standards for Students or even the hand and power tools in your lab (band saw, scroll saw, jigsaw, laser engraver, 3D printer). As they become accustomed to the procedures in the protocol, they will be able to focus on reading and writing critically but in a low-stakes setting
Start by:

  1. Chunking text into manageable parts and form expert homogeneous groups.
  2. Students will read and analyze text (annotating, highlighting, etc.) and share their learning with their expert team.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Along with literacy skills, the engineering journal can also help students improve their artistic and technical drawing skills because they’ll learn how to communicate their ideas through pictures, sketching and drawing. Learning to use drawing tools and building mastery of isometric drawing, multiview drawing and dimensioning will also develop vital workplace skills.

4. Giving presentations

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.

Suzie Boss beautifully explains the importance of thinking critically about the audience for getting the desired results out of project work. Sharing learning with an audience can be a public product that can serve as both a legacy and motivation for students to continue learning about a topic. That could be work that is published online, a PSA about civic duty, a mock TED Talk, a spoken word poem or pitching ideas to a panel of engineers.

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 to use the Bloom’s Taxonomy of measurable verbs when writing your student learning objectives and be mindful of using student friendly-language when designing learning targets. Again, the use of the Project Design: Overview and Student Learning Guide is a great way to organize and map your plan to effectively engage students in STEM projects and build their literacy skills.

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.

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