USF's Museum Blog

Translating Science into Plain English

Editor’s note: This article, written by Ed Carpenter, was originally posted as:

2147483651_u_sarahUSF Professor Sarah Capitelli has helped turn the San Francisco Exploratorium’s renowned, hands-on science into language lessons for non-English speaking students — work that’s received rave reviews.

The curriculum is being hailed in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District (SVUSD), where K-5 teachers say it dramatically improves student engagement and grasp of both English and science. And the Exploratorium’s Institute for Inquiry (IFI), which leads the project, plans to add the new curriculum to its workshops that attract hundreds of professional educators from across the country annually.

A profoundly different approach

“We built the language curriculum around science topics that students are interested in talking about,” Capitelli says of her collaborative effort with IFI science educators. In one lesson, students pull and push nuts and bolts around a table, using a variety of magnets. They stack magnets to make them more powerful. They make predictions and record the results. And they learn language to describe what they observe on their own terms in English.

“It’s profoundly different to learn about magnetism with a table full of magnets that attract and repel than to learn about it in a textbook,” Capitelli says.


Shadows, ladybugs, and snails

In others lessons, students study light and shadows using flashlights in a darkened classroom, or see magnification up close when they examine ladybugs and snails through varying strengths of magnifying glasses.

“It’s amazing,” says Gennifer Caven, a third grade teacher at SVUSD’s El Verano Elementary School, where about 80 percent of students are English-language learners. “Students are eager to share their scientific observations and discoveries by talking and writing in English.”

$3M federal education grant

El Verano was the first school in the district to partner with the Exploratorium to train teachers and adopt the curriculum. The entire district joined the partnership after IFI won a $3 million U.S. Department of Education innovation grant to fund the expansion. About 80 teachers have been trained in the curriculum, and almost 2,000 students have benefited from the new approach, designed to teach English, science, and creative thinking.

“Sarah has helped us develop educational experiences that are at the forefront of the field,” says Lynn Rankin, IFI director. “Very few organizations offer professional development for teachers that bridges language development and inquiry-based science. It’s so valuable because it draws on students’ innate curiosity about the world.”

UnknownTapping students’ creative thinking

“Too often language development is taught in isolation with an emphasis on the bits and pieces that focus on grammar and vocabulary,” Rankin says. “Learning language in context gives it meaning.”

As California and the nation race to educate more scientists, mathematicians, and creative thinkers, we can’t afford to leave students behind because they weren’t brought up speaking English, Rankin says. This curriculum develops those skills and also teaches the students English so that they can participate in our economy and government to the fullest extent, she says.

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