How Maker Education Supports English Languages Learners in STEM

By: Caroline Linne

What is the best way to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to students who haven’t mastered English?

Some educators believe the answer lies in maker education, the latest pedagogical movement that embraces hands-on learning through making, building, creating and collaborating.

That approach seems especially suited for STEM education, and particularly students who speak foreign languages at home. Maker education’s emphasis on critical thinking, creativity and experimentation means that lack of English proficiency becomes less of a barrier.

“With maker education, you speak a universal language. … Everyone can be involved — it’s a natural bridge,” Paul Singh, a fifth-grade teacher in Valhalla, N.Y., told USC Rossier in an article for their online masters in teaching program.

“Makerspaces” can serve as equalizer chambers where native and non-native English speakers learn STEM side by side by tackling projects and solving problems. Students can write computer code, prototype designs with 3-D printers or build robots — all while learning about teamwork and how to handle setbacks and mistakes.

About English Language Learners

Nearly one in every 10 students are learning English as a second language. English language learners (ELL) are the fastest-growing group in public schools and are projected to account for 40 percent of K-12 enrollment by 2040.

An in-depth report by NPR this year found that most ELL students around the country are struggling without the tailored, quality instruction they need. What’s more, many non-ELL teachers –– in particular those who teach STEM in middle and high schools –– do not see themselves as language teachers and sometimes are unprepared to address the unique needs of ELL students, according to a paper in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

Though they lack fluency in English, some ELL students have strong numeracy skills and other knowledge they may be unable to fully demonstrate in class. STEM learning is first and foremost about logic, inquiry and curiosity –– something students possess in any language.

Strategies for Educators

Maker education gives ELLs “a vehicle to express themselves and a tool that can help them learn the lessons without necessarily having mastered the English language,” according to USC Rossier’s guide to maker education.

If you’re interested in creating a makerspace in your classroom or school, here are five ways to make it work for ELL students:

  1. Secure administrator buy-in. You need them to fundraise, evangelize and to prioritize maker education. Supportive administrators are often the “true champions for making,” according to interviews conducted by USC Rossier.
  2. Just go for it. On the other hand, makerspaces needn’t require expensive gear or dedicated rooms. Trish Roffey, a technology consultant in Edmonton, Canada, set up her first makerspace with a bin of materials from a dollar store and a Raspberry Pi computer that cost $35. Makerspace, she says, “is about good teaching and learning, period.”
  3. Keep it inclusive. Makerspaces should be places where ELLs and students of all capabilities can learn without fear of failure. Encourage tinkering and activities that set students up for success. By developing an encouraging atmosphere, you help students understand how to learn from mistakes and incorporate these learnings into future projects, a similar concept when learning a new language.
  4. Tap all the senses. English-learners and students with disabilities or different learning styles respond well to activities with auditory, visual and kinesthetic challenges. A study by the National Association of Elementary School Principals concluded mixed-modality activities allow students to forge deeper, stronger connection between the English language and STEM content.
  5. Use visual cues. Signs and displays are great ways to guide and motivate students who have trouble following or remembering complex instructions. Visual cues can be understood by students of any reading ability, and give them the necessary spark to start on their journey of learning and discovery.

Incorporating just these few things into your classroom space can make a world of a difference for teachers and ELL students. The best way to create a successful learning environment for all students is to make it comfortable, accessible, and adjustable!

Caroline Linne is a Digital PR Coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U, Inc. Caroline supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health, and speech pathology programs.

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