The language of science

March 13, 2014
Aaron Wells, an assistant teacher in FIESTAS. (Photo by Stephen Ward)
Aaron Wells, an assistant teacher, instructs students in the FIESTAS program. (Photo by Stephen Ward)
Ana Lucia Fonseca is the Program Lead of FIESTAS. (Photo by Stephen Ward)
Ana Lucia Fonseca is the Program Lead of FIESTAS. (Photo by Stephen Ward)
A group involved in the FIESTAS program. (Photo by Stephen Ward)
A group of students and staff involved in the FIESTAS after school 4-H program. (Photo by Stephen Ward)

A new teacher can begin his or her career with seemingly boundless enthusiasm and drive. But this teacher then faces the realities of managing a classroom and dealing with the high stakes of testing. Now imagine teaching science to students whose first language is not English.

For many teachers, this experience is increasingly the norm. Nearly 10 percent of all K-12 students spoke a first language other than English, according to the 2012-13 Oregon Statewide Report Card. This statistic is similar nationwide. Although Oregon has made some progress in hiring and retaining more racially and ethnically diverse teachers, this has not matched the pace of the growing diversity of Oregon's students, the same report card shows. 

A collaboration with the Oregon State University Extension Service's 4-H youth development program aims to help aspiring teachers increase culturally diverse students' knowledge of and interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Launched in 2011, the program, Families Involved in Education Sociocultural Teaching and STEM or FIESTAS, is a joint project of 4-H, OSU's College of Education, and the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences program. It reaches youth in the third to fifth grades with after-school 4-H STEM clubs at Lincoln and Garfield elementary schools in Corvallis. At Garfield, the 4-H STEM club works alongside the after-school program run by the Boys and Girls Club of Corvallis.

FIESTAS encourages children and their parents to see science in the intersections between languages and cultures, said Ana Lu Fonseca, a 4-H outreach coordinator who helped develop the curriculum and leads the clubs.

For example, one day, fourth-graders in the STEM club explored science in their neighborhoods. Their pre-service teachers (meaning they're still pursuing their teaching licenses) developed scientific topics that were relevant to the children's interests by paying attention, being flexible and posing critical questions and statements. Statements included, "I need your expertise on this topic, because I truly don't know." The teachers-in-training might not have encountered these improvisational opportunities in the structured, formal school day, Fonseca said. 

That day, two children decided that they were learning about science by climbing all over playground equipment. They imitated the moves of their favorite Mexican wrestler, Rey Mysterio. Chaos soon followed. Yet, instead of viewing it as a distraction that needed discipline, the instructor perceived it as a "teachable moment." She noticed that the boys were thinking about physical activity and body function. She asked them how wrestlers positioned their bodies to avoid getting hurt. The teacher realized she could inspire kids to understand that they were exploring scientific concepts while having fun, Fonseca said. Furthermore, it was a way to connect science to national and ethnic identity. The boys were from Mexico, just like Rey Mysterio. The experience led the pre-service teachers to develop more activities, such as evaluating the chemistry and nutrition of sport drinks, that gave the children and teachers more chances to talk, read, write and investigate questions connected with their cultural interests and passions.

"I think we all make assumptions that a child is not paying attention or not interested, but the subject just may not be familiar to them," said Fonseca, who also organizes a math and science family night for the program that encourages parents to think about science with their children.

Pre-service teachers find ways to empower parents and children, making families feel more confident speaking up in the group, Fonseca explained.

"It takes a shift in thinking among the pre-service teachers and the families themselves to realize that children and parents do have something of value to offer. Parents know more about math and science than they think," Fonseca said.

Rayan Alrasheed, a junior studying business information systems at OSU, volunteers at Garfield in the after-school club. He was recruited to translate Arabic for four students.

"The first time I met with the children, I could see they were trying to engage with the material but they didn't have anyone who could communicate with them," Alrasheed said. "They were frustrated and sometimes would rather not speak up than try to figure out what to say. Now when they're trying to say something, they turn to me first with questions so they can feel more confident, then speak in English to the teachers." 

The program has reached dozens of youth and students aiming to be teachers. During one school year, 49 youth, including 29 Latinos, each completed an average of 13.5 hours of experiential learning activities related to energy use, according to Fonseca. Thirty-seven youth, including 27 Latinos, produced several short science videos that same year. Fifty-six pre-service teachers explained science and math concepts to youth inside and outside the classroom that same year.

When each OSU term wraps up, the pre-service teachers gather to reflect on what they learned. Kyle May, a first-year graduate student at OSU studying math education, said the experience helped him adapt better to a multi-lingual classroom.

"The language barriers have been challenging, with multiple students who speak different languages. I try to put them in a position so that they are confident talking in another language," May said. "If they struggle expressing themselves in English they often refer to each other for help and I encourage that. A lot of schools now have big populations of English language learners, so it's good experience working with students for whom English is not their first language." 

Author: Denise Ruttan
Source: Ana Lu Fonseca