Friends Help Motivate Technical Literacy

One constant challenge for K-12 science teachers is explaining the relevance of technical writing to the future success of their students, especially those disinterested in STEM in the first place. This motivational challenge received some unexpected help this year from supporters near and far of EBSTC’s technical literacy outreach project.

Horner Makes the Connection

From May 31 to June 2, 2015, Nadine R. Horner represented Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) at a nationwide diversity conference hosted by the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) in Baltimore, MD. While there, she attended a session on encouraging girls as well as boys to pursue K-12 science classes, presented by Lee Shumow and Jennifer A. Schmidt, who had coauthored a book called Enhancing Adolescents’ Motivation for Science in 2014. Horner returned with a sample of that book and a generous offer by the authors to provide more copies for the two dozen East Bay teachers slated to attend my professional development workshop on “Technical Writing for Science Class” on June 18-19, 2015, at LLNL

I exchanged e-mails with Shumow and Schmidt, pointing out how well their book had already made the case for explicit literacy coaching by science teachers (p. 136):

Reading a science textbook, writing a lab report, or even science notes, and solving problems require specialized literacy skills that can be acquired if they are taught but are unlikely to be generalized from those literacy skills taught in English class.

The day before my workshop started, a carton of their texts arrived, which I shared with the participating science teachers (from school districts throughout northern California).

Standards Meet Careers

Recently adopted California K-12 standards for both literacy (CCSS) and science (NGSS) contain within them the motivation to build nonfiction writing skills in parallel with mastery of science topics and techniques. But as Shumow and Schmidt note in their book (p. 18), science teachers too often fail to make this connection overt, leaving students unclear about the real-world relevance of STEM and “STEM literacy” alike.

Daniel Nichols proposed a clever response to this omission in his note on “Competencies tie STEM education to careers” in the summer, 2015, issue of NSTA Reports (vol. 22, no. 1, p. 3), a newspaper for science teachers. Nichols suggested showing students how the NGSS “science practices” in a typical lesson match the job requirements listed on typical science-career employment websites. Unfortunately, he did not offer a single concrete example.

To fill this gap, my November, 2015 blog post (to the NSTA Learning Center, the Google Plus “STEM Education” group, and Yahoo’s High School Science Teacher e-mail list) found explicit mentions of crafting explanations and drafting technical reports in public job-competency descriptions for both physicist (a theory-oriented STEM field) and food scientist (an applied field). Learning to write effective nonfiction prose is highly relevant to science class and science students because it is a “science practice” highly relevant to success in many authentic technical careers.

Completing the Circle

Pointing out technical writing’s applicability to pursuing science and engineering beyond school closes the motivational loop. It complements Horner’s conversation with Shumow and Schmidt at the AWIS meeting last May about how to inclusively encourage diverse STEM students and thereby boost their persistence–in academic classes and in life. Thanks to these new friends, motivation for technical literacy is now a standard component of our outreach project’s free, online teacher-training materials.

T. R. Girill
STC Fellow