If our goal is to “seal” the leaky STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) pipeline for English learners (ELs), we must first look at the three areas of greatest impact on students’ exposure to STEM courses:
- Teacher preparation
- Teacher self-efficacy
- Community resources in low-income areas
(“Low-income” is defined as communities where over 80% of students are on reduced lunch meal plans at school.) Research on the leaky pipeline from my May 2021 blog stated that students who do not find personal meaning or relevance in STEM-related fields by their middle school years will not pursue anything beyond what is required in school (Lyon et al., 2012).
Let’s dive a little deeper into our three focus areas.
1. Teacher Preparation
Early grade science is a student’s first key STEM opportunity (Will, 2018), and effective teaching in grade school is a make-or-break factor in future STEM success, yet, according to a study conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality, only 3% of undergraduate elementary programs require relevant coursework in biology, chemistry, and physical science or physics. Of the 810 programs studied, 66% percent don’t require coursework in any of those core subjects (Will, 2018). So, the question becomes, how can we even begin to address the lack of STEM exposure when teacher education programs and federal agencies do not make it a requirement?
Why Is This a Concern?
STEM has a direct impact on language development for ELs because of its inquiry-based, hands-on instructional practice. During STEM classes, ELs are provided the opportunity to practice the language by working in collaborative and/or small groups. Language development requires active learning, and STEM encourages hearing and speaking, which are necessary to acquire listening and speaking skills (TESOL International Association, 2018).
What Can We Do?
ELs need opportunities to interact with the language to develop their academic vocabulary. But if mainstream teachers do not have the training, confidence, or knowledge to teach STEM courses, it will influence the amount of time elementary science teachers will spend on it (Will, 2012). We need to act on and take advantage of the natural curiosity of young children if we want to see an increase of interest in STEM in the middle grades. To do that, we must address the lack of required STEM training in elementary teacher education programs.
2. Teacher Self-Efficacy
General education teachers play a critical role in the education of ELs (de Haan, 2019). Teachers want their students to be successful, and when they find themselves faced with a lack of success in teaching ELs, they begin to doubt their ability to be an effective teacher for all their students. Without specific coursework relating to the unique learning needs of ELs, general education teachers will not be able to teach these students successfully. When teachers do not understand the linguistic development of student learning a second language, there is a greater likelihood of grave misconceptions of the student’s cognitive abilities (de Haan, 2019).
Why Is This a Concern?
If the teachers are not trained to identify and understand the stages of language acquisition and what the students are capable of doing and understanding at each stage of language acquisition, there is a higher likelihood that the students will not receive the proper scaffolds in their instruction to be successful. This can lead to the teacher’s belief that the students do not possess the knowledge, desire, and aptitude to be successful in STEM or higher level courses, leaving them to remain in remedial classes, reducing their ability to exit the school’s ESL program, or resulting in their being reenrolled in the program. This critically affects students’ opportunities to take STEM courses, and worse, their belief that they are capable of being successful in such careers.
What Can We Do?
One way to avoid this pitfall is for teachers to know their students and create a rich student to teacher relationship. Student achievement is affected by teacher expectations of success. A teacher with high expectations will exhibit positive behaviors toward students, motivating them to perform at a higher level because of their personal relationship (TESOL International Association, 2018).
3. Community Resources in Low-Income Areas
Students who live in low-income communities have pervasive structural barriers to participating in STEM out-of-school opportunities, such as summer STEM camps, because of some of the following reasons:
- the inability to pay program registration fees
- lack of prerequisite knowledge
- competitive application processes
- inability to demonstrate preexisting interest in science
- poor literacy skills
- lack of transportation
- a dearth of accessible opportunities
According to Breiseth (2015), “Nearly 60% of [ELs] nationwide are from low-income families,” which means that many ELs will not have STEM exposure outside of school.
Why Is This a Concern?
This means that schools are the sole source of these students’ exposure to STEM activities and classes. However, if the general education teacher lacks the training to successfully work with ELs, we cannot fix the leaky pipeline, expose our ELs to STEM programs, and get them on the STEM pathway to STEM careers—and those students who live in low-income communities are at the greatest risk.
What Can We Do?
We must turn to providing teachers with embedded professional development on topics such as understanding the language acquisition process and critical introspection of teacher beliefs about ELs and linguistic diversity. According to Dr. Ayanna Cooper in her book And Justice for ELs, to create a catalyst for change, school leaders must first confront their own biases and knowledge gaps about minority student populations. If we do not do these things, our education system will continue to imperil ELs’ academic success and emphasize what they cannot do rather than what they already do well, thereby stifling their learning as a result of low expectations (de Haan, 2019).
We need to begin to look at the science curriculum of our youngest of learners, because that is where the STEM pipeline begins. Teachers and school leaders need to reflect on their perception of their students because it impacts their approach to teaching them. Such reflection is necessary before school leaders will be able to create and sustain inclusive school communities for all students, especially ELs (Cooper, 2021). Districts need to provide their teaching staff with ongoing embedded professional development on how to successfully teach this growing population, because schools may be ELs’ only opportunity for STEM exposure.
Does your school provide ongoing embedded professional development on teaching ELs? What are your thoughts on how to increase teacher self-efficacy in the context of ELs? Please share your responses and your thoughts in the comments, below.
Breiseth, L. (2015). What you need to know about ELLs: Fast facts. Colorín Colorado. https://www.colorincolorado.org/article/what-you-need-know-about-ells-fast-facts
Cooper, A. (2021). And justice for ELs: a leader’s guide to creating and sustaining equitable schools. Corwin.
de Haan, D. C. (2019). Increasing the self-efficacy of general education teachers of ELLs [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. Stockton University.
Lyon, G. H., Jafri, J., & St. Louis, K. (2012, Fall). Beyond the pipeline: STEM pathways for youth development. Afterschool Matters. National Institute on Out-of-School Time. https://niost.org/Afterschool-Matters-Fall-2012/beyond-the-pipeline-stem-pathways-for-youth-development
TESOL International Association. (2018). The 6 principles for exemplary teaching of English learners.
Will, M. (2018, May 22). Early-grades science: The first key STEM opportunity. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/early-grades-science-the-first-key-stem-opportunity/2018/05