by Janice Friesen
One of the most prevalent buzzwords in education today is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). In the United States, many argue that schools are not turning out enough people, especially women, who are equipped with STEM skills. To address the issue, educators at the University of Texas Elementary School decided that STEM was so important that they actually created a position called the STEM teacher. The students go to STEM class just like they go to any special classes such music, art, or PE.
But when STEM becomes so important, one begins to wonder what happens with reading or text literacy? Does instruction in literacy skills fall by the wayside in the wake of the growing emphasis on STEM skills? In this post, I share two sets of observations about interesting practices that lead me to think that when STEM skills are taught correctly, they may actually help foster success in reading as well.
At the University of Texas Elementary School, STEM class students in third and fourth grade are creating programs using SCRATCH. Scratch is a program created by MIT to help children learn computer programming skills. The application is very powerful and yet very simple for children to use. Students write sections of code designed to tell a cartoon character what to do on the screen. While creating these projects, the students practice many reading skills that appear to transfer to their practices when picking up a book.
The most obvious of these reading skills is sequencing. When students use programs like SCRATCH, they learn to think carefully about what needs to happen first, second, and third – often by writing out or drawing a storyboard that shows what they are planning to create. In turn, these sequencing skills transfer over to aid reading comprehension using similar processes.
2. TO GOOGLE, OR NOT TO GOOGLE
Another class at this school is working on a very interesting year-long project. Second grade math and science students are learning that although just about everything can be “Googled,” this may not always be the best strategy. These students are discovering that sometimes reading a book or talking to an expert is a better way to find out something. To inform their decisions, students use a bulletin board divided into two sections: one side is labeled “Googleable” and the other side is labeled “Not Googleable.”
During the school year, students begin each of their thematic units by learning about a problem, asking questions, and trying to find answers. They start out by writing their question on sticky notes and then they place their question on what they believe to be the correct side of the bulletin board. Once they have specific questions, they begin looking for answers. Sometimes their search involves finding a book and other times it involves doing an experiment or talking to an expert.
This is another example of STEM teaching that leads to text literacy. While engaged in these activities, students become fascinated with non-fiction books because they are curious about what they can find out from them. They are motivated to read articles online and in journals and newspapers that are too difficult for them. They are actively reading for meaning, so they eagerly seek help when they need it. They do not skip past words they do not understand, which might cause them to gloss over the big ideas. Often, they read with a parent or other adult who can bring things to a level that they can understand.
Recently, students at the school performed quite well on their mid-year benchmark tests in reading. Their performance caused me to wonder: Could the emphasis on STEM skills have anything to do with that? I think the question is worthy of further consideration as we move forward with a focus on developing STEM skills as part of the elementary school curriculum.
To learn more about what is happening with second graders at The University of Texas Elementary School, read their blog.
Janice Friesen is a self-employed teacher. Her business I’m not a Geek.com helps people to be successful using technology. Her searchable blog http://helpimnotageek.blogspot.com offers tips for successful use of technology.
This article is part of a series from the International Reading Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).