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ASU Pilot Project Aims To Make Science And Math More Accessible Through Language

It’s mid morning, and a group of teachers and Arizona State University researchers are deep into a conversation about fractions.

"Once you have drawn two-thirds you are going to have to justify your drawing to your table," said Stephanie Lund, who is heading up this classroom full of veteran teachers. She added that words and language are a big part of the math lesson.

Today’s class is part of a larger grant funded research project at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s college known as iTeach ELLs, which stands for English language learners. It’s goal is to improve ELL students' experience and performance in math and science classes. Subjects that they have historically fallen behind their fluent English speaking peers.

"If language isn’t a skill that I have, everything that you’re saying to me is that much more difficult for me to understand," Lund said. 

Which is why, Lund said, her group is trying to shift the focus of ASU’s K-8 teacher candidates and veteran teachers, so that language is the first thing they think about when planning any lesson, whether it’s reading and grammar, or biology and yes, those dreaded fractions.

"So if I’m a science teacher I can no longer think of myself as just a science teacher," Lund said. "Instead I have to recognize that science is a language."

While all of ASU's teacher candidates are technically qualified to teach ELL students after graduation, only about 1 percent set out to work with these kids and get specific training.

Lund explained the reality is all Arizona teachers are going to work with English language learners in some way, whether they’re content teachers who see ELL students after their language classes or an elementary school teacher with students who are never registered in the program but should have been. 

"Regardless of the student’s classification, all of our student are language learners," said Martha Pickett, a first grade teacher in Phoenix's Roosevelt School District. "Most of our students bring a double deficit - they’re both low income and language learners. So they bring limited oral language skills. Limited vocabulary so they’re truly not fluent in any language."

Which is why part of this language first learning method also involves another shift in science education to what’s known as problem based learning.

"As students do science they use language in contextualized settings," said Dr. Okhee Lee, a childhood education professor at New York University. "And as they use the language, they learn the language as a product but not as a precursor or prerequisite."

Lee also worked on the team that developed a learning framework known as the Next Generation Science Standards, which ASU’s pilot program is drawing from. She said rather than having students memorize facts about scientific phenomena like decomposition, for example, teachers should give their students more real world, up close and personal experience like a field trip to the landfill instead.

"So there’s this synergy of doing science and using science at the same time and that’s what we try to capitalize on," Lee said.

That way, she said, kids will be compelled to ask questions that teachers will then help them solve. It’s this kind of interaction with math and science, Lee thinks, that make the subjects a lot more approachable, no matter what language you speak.

Carrie Jung Senior Field Correspondent, Education Desk Carrie Jung began her public radio career in Albuquerque, N.M., where she fell in love with the diverse cultural scene and unique political environment of the Southwest. Jung has been heard on KJZZ since 2013 when she served as a regular contributor to the Fronteras Desk from KUNM Albuquerque. She covered several major stories there including New Mexico's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and Albuquerque's failed voter initiative to ban late-term abortions. Jung has also contributed stories about environmental and Native American issues to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's The World, Al Jazeera America, WNYC's The Takeaway, and National Native News. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in marketing, both from Clemson University. When Jung isn't producing content for KJZZ she can usually be found buried beneath mounds of fabric and quilting supplies. She recently co-authored a book, "Sweet And Simple Sewing," with her mother and sister, who are fabric designers.