Professor of Science and Engineering Education, Executive Vice-Dean Queen Mary Engineering School, NPU, Director, CAISE
STEM experts have little awareness of the impact of language in STEM learning, because it is not within their disciplinary expertise. If you are not an expert, expert language can be exclusionary. Some of these issues relate to highly technical language, but also to the use of language which may have a slightly different meaning in non-STEM contexts.
Studies in primary and secondary education identify language and reading comprehension as critical for STEM understanding. This is particularly correlated to social exclusion in the UK, but is also critical for international students. We have created a student-centred approach to highlight the importance of language in STEM learning to address these issues and provide a space where language and meaning can be queried: Report a Word Forms.
During our work in QMUL Science and Engineering Transnational Education (TNE) China Operations (Queen Mary Engineering School of Northwestern Polytechnical University of Xi’an, Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications-QMUL Joint Programme and Nanchang University-QMUL Joint Programme) we became aware of the importance of language and language development in STEM learning. Traditionally, our TNE teaching had used glossaries to introduce students to complex STEM terminology in English. These approaches have limited impact, because glossaries are teacher-centric, from a perspective that is removed from the perspective of a Chinese UG-learner of STEM in English in China.
We created “Report a Word Forms” (RAWFs) which students could use to report a word they had difficulty with, and provide its context, as well as a brief explanation on why they found it difficult. The result surprised us because most of the queries related not to highly technical terminology, but words which had a meaning in everyday language but shifted meaning in STEM, or were used in STEM slightly different. For example “octet” (group of 8 electrons in Chemistry, but also group of 8 musicians), “populate” (related in STEM to energy states, but clearly with an origin in “people”), or “hardness”, “strength”, “strain”, “stress”, “toughness” (very specific and different mechanical properties or variables). Because of this unexpected result (unexpected to us, STEM experts), our reflections shifted from “language is an issue affecting international students” to “expert language is an issue affecting all students”.
We subsequently found vast literature of the impact of language in STEM learning in primary and secondary education and its correlation to social exclusion in the UK. Critically, using RAWFs opened the discussion and created a space where it is “alright” to query lack of understanding, to seek clarification, to acknowledge “I don’t know what this means”. It also opened up the reflection, for us STEM experts, on what students mean when they say “I don’t understand this”: if we do not start with language, is it educationally sound? How can we be inclusive in our teaching without including our students to our expert language? Are we ever not a language teacher? How can we make expert language not a tool for exclusion, but for inclusion? This is, of course, particularly true for international students in TNE, for international students in the UK, but also for home students in the UK. After all, no-one is born a native speaker of “STEM-glish”!
This approach also reinforced our idea that true inclusion comes from co-creation with students, and when we actually listen to their needs; attempting to anticipate their needs does not give us the complete picture of what is required. In a sense, Report a Word became a tool, but also a continuous source for reflection on inclusive approaches to education. As a result, we have revised our teaching to reflect on meaning in ways that we had not anticipated, which are more supportive for developing understanding in STEM for all students. Currently we are working to migrate RAWFs online as a platform, with results available as an open resource for students and staff everywhere.