On May 9, the ACS hosted a Reddit AMA session with Sally Mitchell, a leader in STEM education and a recent fellow at the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Mitchell, who is certified to teach a variety of scientific disciplines, is an advocate for interdisciplinary collaboration, especially when it comes to merging English education and STEM. Check out some highlights below from this AMA, which also took place on National Teacher Appreciation Day.
/u/S_rufus: Hi Sally, I’m curious what advice you have for STEM grad students that also serve as teaching assistants. During my first week, I’d assumed that the students — just as I did — cared about the structure and (let’s just say it) legibility of their written work. I was wrong. The issue, however, is that the students were resistant to and vocally complained about being taught how to structure their arguments and how to write clearly and concisely. (Can still hear their favorite complaint BUT WE’RE NOT IN ENGLISH CLASS!!.) Systematic problems aside, what should STEM teaching assistants do reinforce how important it is to have a solid grasp on the English language, especially when first- and second-year students all seem so hostile towards it?
Sally Mitchell: My advice for a teaching assistant is to keep on caring about the structure and legibility of your students’ work. As a high school teacher, I would correct spelling and grammatical mistakes on chemistry lab reports and I would hear the same complaint “But we’re not in English class” and I would respond “you are in school and communication is important.” Why do we always have to separate into subject areas? I am a teacher and an educator. My role is to guide and coach my students in their learning and understanding of the material. Collaboration across the disciplines is important in all levels of education and when we realize this, students win.
/u/GrandZebraCrew: How important is English and good writing, specifically, in communicating about science? In the book “Writing Science in Plain English” by Anne Greene, the author makes the point that science must be clearly written in order to be understood and applied by other scientists, which is the end goal. However, too much science writing is bogged down in passive voice, overuse of elaborate terminology, and overly complex language. She argues we need more concrete subjects, strong verbs, consistent terms, and better-organized paragraphs. What do you think?
Sally Mitchell: The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University offers classes that teach scientists to communicate with the public. One key lesson: Don’t use acronyms when speaking. If you want to say ACS, instead, say American Chemical Society when speaking to people outside of the chemistry world. I think that scientists and engineers should write with creativity in mind. Use metaphors to deepen the interest of the reader. One of my best students in AP Chemistry was also a great writer in English class. When he went to college, he majored in chemistry, but his love of writing allowed him to publish and publish and publish. He is now pursuing his Ph.D. in chemistry at New York University. I can’t wait to read his dissertation. It will be a great read.
/u/freshlikeuhhn21: A lot of educated commenters talking about higher levels of implementation of this idea, but I would like to see it in lower level classes in high school and middle school such as General and for those with learning disabilities. I think there’s a scientific illiteracy epidemic in the United States and this idea could significantly help that. What do you think?
Sally Mitchell: I think that organizations such as the American Chemical Society (ACS) are doing their part in helping teachers to incorporate science literacy into their curriculum. Chemmatters is a quarterly publication geared towards the high school chemistry student. The readings are interesting and current and full of chemistry. My students love reading them and now the ACS has published “The Best of ChemMatters: Connecting Science and Literacy”. This publication has 12 excellent lesson plans connecting STEM content to scientific literacy while improving student’s reading comprehension. The newly formed American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT) has an online journal for teachers with lesson plans implementing scientific literacy into science lessons for K-12 teachers of chemistry. I am excited to have excellent student materials prepared for teachers to use.
/u/Gent1emanGhost: Thank you for taking our questions today Sally! I think it’s accurate to say the United States is currently dealing with a mass issue of social scientific illiteracy. Many people seem to view science as a collection of facts discovered by professionals rather than a creative, exploratory process that is open to everyone. What do you think educators can do to foster a personal connection between students and the scientific process? Specifically, I’m thinking of the kind of connection that could lead students to turn to the scientific method independently when dealing with inquiries that arise in their everyday lives.
Sally Mitchell: With the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in many states, the key is teaching students to ask questions and use science and engineering principles along the way. I am teaching 7th grade Common Core Mathematics this year and I am loving the time to discover so many connections between 7th-grade mathematics and high school chemistry. Content literacy is also a part of my middle school day bringing English, social studies, art, family and consumer science, technology all together with science and math. My students are learning in an environment connecting all the dots across the curriculum. I think there needs to be more open minds in the heads of the educators at all levels and work with teachers across the disciplines. This will require teachers to have a deep knowledge of their own subject material and the confidence to step outside of their circles and bring in the other disciplines.
To learn more about the ACS AMA program and to read through past sessions, please visit this site.