STEM is the buzz word in education nowadays. Everyone is focusing their efforts on making sure students are engaged in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at an early age. As a math lover with family members in the STEM fields (women too! Let’s hear in for women in STEM fields!), I have always felt that STEM education was very important and that students could never get enough of it.
This past fall I had to stop and think about my perspective on STEM education. We were asked to create a course that would help teachers promote literacy in the STEM and vocational classrooms at the secondary level. As I asked more and more questions about this course and what they thought the content should be, it sounded like they were asking for a Methods of Teaching Reading in the Content Area course. Instantly, I thought “Why should Career Technology Teachers need to teach reading? Shouldn’t the students know how to read enough to be successful in their STEM class?” Sadly, the answer is no, at least not a critical thinking level.
Reading is a great skill but it means nothing if comprehension, literacy and critical thinking are not part of the process. I could read the sentence, “Pipette six hundred milliliters into the graduated cylinder” but still not understand what that means. What is a graduated cylinder and how do you pipette? STEM and trade school subjects come with their own dense vocabulary. Most times, when reading , people use context clues to figure out the meanings of new words without even knowing it. With so many scientific terms and ideas, reading for comprehension of new vocabulary and concepts is so critical for students in the STEM fields. Students need to be reading for comprehension in order not just read the sentence but grasp the concept as well.
Physics was one of my favorite classes in high school. It relies heavily on math (which is probably what drew me to it and scared others away) and addresses concepts that occur in our daily lives (i.e. gravity, acceleration, velocity). Because physics lessons and ideals were very tangible, our lab experiment were hands on and usually very practical. However, concepts presented in physics were often tested using scenarios that were presented as word problems (see examples here). If you didn’t understand the scenario that the word problem is trying to set up for you, it is nearly impossible to set up the proper equations to even get started on coming to the right solution. Trigonometry is a lot like physics in the sense that there are many ways to describe a scenario that is involved angles and distances. Without good reading skills, you can never be sure if you are supposed to use sine, cosine, or tangent.
Now I wish that every child would make it to high school and have perfect reading comprehension skills but that’s just not the reality of the situation. Instead, ALL educators must be equipped with the tools to promote literacy and reading for comprehension in ALL subjects.
The course we created is called Academic Literacy for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and Career Technology Educator (check out the info in our summer schedule). We hope to see you there!