Although I hope that all of my students will be lifelong readers of novels and poetry and will turn to literature as a source of pleasure, growth, and wisdom, many of the texts that young people will need to read and write—as an element of their education and work, as well as life in the 21st century—will be rooted in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
As they grow into adults, our students will need to parse dense texts about the medical care they and their families receive. They’ll need to consider news about issues such as climate change and sustainability to make informed decisions as voters and to read manuals about the increasingly sophisticated machines that are a part of our daily lives.
As work becomes more specialized, students might need to communicate about the technical elements of their jobs to a lay audience. And perhaps most of all, they’ll need to have a strong voice in the conversations about the ethics of what is becoming possible.
To help prepare them for that world, our team of English teachers has developed a unit on STEM reading and writing.
Connect with the STEM teachers at your school
When we reinforce the learning that students are already doing with our colleagues in other classes, we help learners create deeper, more lasting knowledge and skills. For instance, the computer science teacher and I have marveled at the parallels between coding and poetry; between our two classes, our students learn how an idea can be beautiful and powerful when it’s expressed in a few short lines.
When our students were reading a complex description of genetics, the biology teachers led a lab in which students swabbed their cheeks and found their own DNA. Our school’s astronomy teacher gave a guest lecture about the origins of constellations and mythology. All of the colleagues I’ve approached have been eager to see how our learning goals for our students align, and we exchange support in meeting those goals.
Have a conversation about the author’s purpose and genre
Reading STEM-focused texts provides an opportunity for students to contrast how different strategies produce a unique effect on the reader. My students consider how the author’s choices for an instruction manual for assembling a miniature windmill shape their experience of putting it together. They contrast the conventions of that kind of text with a more narrative-driven memoir about wind energy, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.
Giving students examples of different forms of texts helps them to select a register and structure that’s appropriate for different occasions in their own writing.
Prepare students for technical vocabulary
Students will often encounter an unfamiliar set of words when reading a STEM-focused text; when we read The Hot Zone, a book about the origins of Ebola, I talk with my students’ biology teachers to see if they have covered terms like filovirus, epidemiology, coagulate, and mutate, and if not, we discuss them before reading.
For words like expatriate, benign, or amplify, which I think students might encounter in a broad variety of texts, I try to equip students with strategies for breaking down unfamiliar terms into roots, consulting resources, and using context to understand.
Examine how figurative language can help science communication
Analogies and metaphors are particularly powerful tools for explaining abstract and complicated ideas. As we continue reading The Hot Zone, students consider how author Richard Preston compares the Ebola virus, something so infinitesimally small that his human readers could never perceive it without a microscope, to both a shark for its danger and a cathedral for its complexity.
We use the essay “In Defense of Metaphors in Science Writing” to discuss the power and limitations of nonliteral comparison as a tool for understanding STEM, and I invite students to attempt those approaches in their own writing through the New York Times STEM Writing Contest, which also offers some outstanding mini-lessons to support students in crafting a submission.
Dig into the themes and questions you’re covering
Lab-based science courses must often focus on helping students understand the technical elements of STEM subjects, but English classes can reflect on the human impact and ethical considerations. When my classes read Frankenstein, they love to discuss the ethics of the risk involved in scientific innovation.
We extend that conversation to a more contemporary conflict as we consider the screenplay for the series Chernobyl and students think about the limitations of good intentions in new technology and the need for caution and judgment in its development. My students understand that STEM can play a role in helping us to create a better world, and many of them want to have a part in that, but they’re eager for guidance in how to do that responsibly.
Select texts with a consciousness of marginalized voices
In choosing texts about science and technology that feature people of color, women, and others who have traditionally been excluded from those fields, we help our students see a future for themselves in which they’re powerful participants. My teaching team realized that our text selections didn’t reflect the diversity of our students, so we expanded our unit to include The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the story of a Black woman whose cells were taken and used without her consent by the medical industry, and Hidden Figures, a book chronicling the contributions of Black women during NASA’s early years of space exploration.
I recently ran into a former student who was home from college, who told me that she was majoring in public health, and what had led her to choose that as a career was reading The Hot Zone in our class at the beginning of high school. And as the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the world, kids from my classes over the years mentioned that our work together in our STEM unit helped them to make sense of what was happening.
As long as people speak and write about STEM subjects, English teachers will have a role in shaping those conversations and preparing students to participate in them.