Science 20/20 connects future teachers with language learners through STEM

Pre-service teachers in the College of Education work virtually with emergent bilingual children in grades three to five in an after-school enrichment program focused on STEM education. The program facilitating this collaboration, Science 20/20: Bringing Language Learners into Focus, provides valuable learning experiences for both the College of Education students and the elementary school children participating in the program through the Hazleton One Community Center. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

It can be said that ideal education partnerships bring together teachers and students to energize and advance each other’s work of learning and figuring out.

One example of such a partnership is Science 20/20: Bringing Language Learners into Focus, in which one aspect of the project is conducted in partnership between Penn State’s College of Education and the Hazleton One Community Center.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to complete their 20-hour practicum experience, 14 pre-service teachers worked virtually last fall with 20 emergent bilingual children in grades three to five in an after-school enrichment program focused on STEM education. This semester, those numbers doubled as two cohorts of 14 pre-service teachers are working with up to 40 elementary students.

Pre-service teacher Samantha Garcia participated during the fall semester as part of the WLED 483 class and exercised the option she had to return to the project during the spring.

“It means the world to me,” she said. “Studying to be ESL-certified has empowered me to describe myself as an advocate for my future students; it is important for me to show them that their education does matter, and I want to put in the hard work and dedication for them. From getting to collaborate with peers and the mentors, I was introduced to different types of thinking and planning along with co-planning which stressed communication, flexibility and having an open mind.”

Science 20/20’s work with the Hazleton One Community Center is part of a larger community-school-university partnership. As part of a five-year federally funded National Professional Development grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition, the Science 20/20 team collaborates with school district and community partners to provide unique opportunities for preservice and practicing teachers to engage students in meaningful and authentic science and language practices.

Science 20/20 had the opportunity to connect future teachers enrolled in WLED 483: Evaluating Schools Performances and Programs with English Language Learners (ELLs) to virtual placements.

“This experience links the ESL Certification Program to English learners remotely in response to the needs of both the Hazleton community and the needs of student teachers to adapt to remote teaching in response to COVID,” said May Lee, instructor of education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the project coordinator.

Lee said one of the cornerstones of equity that runs across the project and throughout College of Education programs is questioning who gets access to these kinds of opportunities. “I think the students that we work with at the community center and as part of the project aren’t necessarily afforded opportunities for STEM education enrichment,” she said.

Agreeing with the focus on equitable access, Carla Zembal-Saul, professor of education (science education) and project director, said, “Including opportunities to work with children who are from communities that experience unequal distribution of resources and power, or who are part of groups that have been historically marginalized in science, is important to future teachers’ development as effective, anti-racist educators.”

The student teachers’ roles in the enrichment program were centered on three investigations using the engineering design process paired with block coding technology (Micro:bits) to build upon children’s natural curiosity and engagement in engineering design challenges while simultaneously providing high-quality instruction for emergent bilinguals.

Megan Lynch, professional development associate and research assistant on the Science 20/20 Project, and doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, explained that the project is an opportunity to offer support for English learners in an informal setting and ensure these elementary children gain access to high-quality curricula and instruction in science that they may not experience in school.

Central goals are to provide future teachers with an internship in which they work with emergent bilingual children in a new immigrant community; engage future teachers in the practice-based work of integrating differentiated academic language practices with the content and practices of STEM disciplines; and support a local community center that provides services for the city’s growing Latinx population and emergent bilingual children.

The STEM content of the internship is different for each cohort. One uses Micro:bits technology and a variety of materials to complete three engineering investigations while another cohort works on different and more challenging investigations. For example, future teachers guide children to build simple electronic circuits using conductive tape, LEDs, low-voltage coin cell batteries and other materials to create 3D interactive projects.

“Some of the future teachers who were enrolled in WLED 483 have returned to the internship this semester,” Lee said.

“They are mentors to the new teachers given their prior experiences with the children, curriculum and center context. Likewise, many children in Hazleton who participated in the Micro:bits curriculum in fall have returned and are participating in the new investigations and they’re doing really exciting things with circuits.”

According to Lee, the coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent restrictions allowed future teachers and community partners to re-think what is possible in the after-school context.

“I think the use of STEM education as an enrichment opportunity provides hands-on experiences for students to be able to really use science concepts and engineering practices to design applications that are interesting to them,” she said.

Eric Smith, an elementary education major with no prior experience with English learners, said his experience with the program was quite rewarding. “Many people don’t fully understand the complexity of the English language, as I’ve learned even more through my student teaching experience this year,” he said.

Lynch said the future teachers’ trepidation stems from the fact that some of the children do not speak English — something that dissipates with their very first interaction.

“Our undergraduates don’t typically have a lot of experiences with emergent bilinguals and having this opportunity is really great for them. By the end they are recognizing the multitude of linguistic repertoires that these children have and that they’re really navigating this bi/multilingual space,” Lynch said.

“They get to see these students in Hazleton talk to someone at Penn State in English and then turn around and talk to a volunteer in Hazleton in fluent Spanish. The Penn State future teachers recognize this as an asset. They’re like, ‘that’s incredible; I can’t believe you can do that. That’s amazing; I wish I could do that.’”

Lee said the perception that future teachers have of who English learners are and what emergent bilinguals can do is really turned on its head through these kinds of experiences.

“I think the unique opportunity of being in the community center highlights the linguistic repertoires of children, especially the fluid and dynamic uses of language. Moving seamlessly between Spanish and English might not occur in the context of school; it might not be supported in classrooms where there is an English dominant narrative,” Lee said.

Pre-service teacher Noah Schultz noted how his students came from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds than his own.

“Sadly, in the past we ‘hushed’ these voices in our classrooms as we only allowed English to be spoken,” Schultz said. “In this program I experienced the encouragement of a multilingual and multicultural classroom and saw how allowing everyone’s experiences to be shared allowed greater learning for all.

“The experience was definitely valuable in my professional growth and beneficial in the fact that it allowed me to actively practice many strategies that I had learned throughout my time in the ESL classes," said Schultz.

Smith noted that when meeting with the Hazleton Integration Project (HIP) students he can feel the excitement and willingness to learn radiating throughout the room. “Which is such a fantastic feeling,” he said.

“Every week we would work to incorporate both science and language concepts into our curriculum with the HIP students. Sometimes it would go as planned, and sometimes not, simply because that’s the nature of teaching. The most important thing, however, was that both we and the students gained valuable experience each and every week,” Smith said.

Alyssa Graziano labeled her teaching experience with the Hazleton students as nothing short of phenomenal.

“The connections that were made with these students has been something I have been longing for in all of my teaching experiences,” she said. “Not only did these students help me feel more secure in my teaching practices, I felt like they were teaching me more than I even realize. The Science 20/20 project gave my classmates and me the opportunity to put all of our fundamentals of teaching to the test in situations that were both in and out of our comfort zones.

“As we see an increase in virtual learning platforms, having the opportunity to practice these new teaching strategies in real time really has prepared us to go into the field in an age where technology has never been more prevalent. From learning alongside these students, I have grown as a teacher and a learner.”

Graziano added that the key to assisting English learners is reaching out to all who wish to learn.

“As members of the College of Education and aspiring teachers, we do everything in our power to help others learn,” she said. “Being an active teacher means helping educate all of those around us, regardless of language. I find that being a helpful teacher and advocate for English learners is of the utmost importance.”

Garcia said there are a variety of ways to deliver a message.

“I grew to realize that teaching comes in various styles and forms and how all teachers have different experiences,” she said. “This allowed me to further appreciate collaboration and explore new and unique strategies I may have not been introduced to otherwise.”

Last Updated April 20, 2021