English Learners Key to a Multi-lingual STEM Workforce

Future U.S. competitiveness will depend on how well we prepare our students and provide them the proper skills to be college and career-ready, especially when it comes to careers in the STEM fields.  In the K-12 education setting, this means providing ALL students, including English Learners (ELs), access to a high-quality STEM education.  Unfortunately, recent data indicate that ELs often do not have the same access to quality STEM instruction as their non-EL peers.  To highlight effective practices and resources for promoting EL achievement in the STEM subjects, ED’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) recently hosted a one-day forum entitled, “High-Quality STEM Education for English Learners”.

Held in Washington, DC on July 11, the forum was attended by more than 65 participants who listened to presentations from individuals representing research, practice, professional organizations, and business in the STEM fields.  Notable speakers included Congressman Rúben Hinojosa (D-TX) and Michelle Shearer, the 2011 National Teacher of the Year.

One big take-away from this forum is that perceptions about English Learners need to change.  Rather than seeing English Learners in terms of their academic underachievement, we need to see them as an untapped resource for developing a multi-lingual STEM workforce that has the potential to keep the U.S. competitive in an increasingly competitive global economy.

Congressman Rúben Hinojosa opened the meeting by sharing a motivating and inspiring personal story about his own experience as an English Learner growing up in 1940’s south Texas. Hinojosa highlighted his work to support greater educational opportunities for residents of south Texas and his efforts to support and strengthen minority-serving institutions (MSIs), especially in south Texas, in hopes of creating an education pipeline for students living in the mostly agrarian region.

During the forum I shared several key findings from the recently released Civil Rights Data Collection biennial survey.  The survey’s Part I findings show that English Learners are still being denied access to the kinds of classes, resources, and educational opportunities necessary to be successful in college and career.  Among other things, the data shows that English Learners have lower rates of enrollment in Algebra I, which is a critical gateway course for other advanced math and science courses that act as hurdles that slow or halt a student’s progress towards a college degree.  The data also show that English Learners tend to enroll in advanced placement math and science courses at lower rates than their non-EL peers.

During her remarks at the forum, National Teacher of the Year Michelle Shearer, who teaches chemistry in Frederick, Maryland, shared some effective teaching practices she has used with deaf students that teachers can use with EL students such as using examples when teaching a new concept, using visuals, making lessons relevant to students’ lives, and validating students’ use of their native language. She spoke enthusiastically about her teaching experiences and emphasized that besides the basic 3Rs, students will need the 4Cs: critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication skills.

Besides teacher education and effective practices, other presentations focused on data collection, data analysis methods and research; parent, family and community engagement; and the potential impact public/private partnerships can have for reforming and transforming STEM education for ELs.  Those interested may view the presentations online at http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/meetings/stemforum/.

Rosalinda B. Barrera, Ph.D. is assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) at the U.S. Department of Education.

1 Comment

  1. I agree that giving visual support to special need or LEP students has a significant impact on their emrging comunication skills. Also, as a teacher I always try to put my self in my students shoes, what would I do?
    I also beleive that problem solving is highly relate to your culture, and you may learn to resolve a simple conflict in a way that in another culture will be unacepted.
    Working with multicultural back ground students requires observation before judgement.

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