Reimagining STEM for English Learners

Science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM) learning is for all students. STEM learning is essential in today’s classrooms because it arms our students with the knowledge and skills to process information, uncover problems, design solutions, collect data, evaluate evidence, and engage with technology.

STEM isn’t just experimenting in laboratories and solving complicated equations; our world depends on it. STEM promotes students’ inherent curiosity as they make sense of the natural world and solve problems in innovative ways to improve society.  From making healthy, economical decisions at the grocery store to understanding the complexities of our universe, a rigorous and robust STEM education is imperative for our students to become knowledgeable, productive citizens and ready to enter the workforce.

The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported that employment in STEM occupations grew by 10.5% between May 2009 and May 2015, compared to only 5.2% growth in non-STEM occupations. The national average wage for all STEM occupations was $87,570, almost double the national average of non-STEM jobs at $45,700. Giving students access to quality STEM instruction won’t just open opportunities for them to be savvier critical thinkers, it can also open many opportunities for employment in the future. Unfortunately, our English learners (ELs) are woefully underrepresented in STEM fields. How can educators best prepare EL students to be ready for the STEM jobs of the future?

It is essential to acknowledge that all children, irrespective of their home culture and first language, arrive at school with rich knowledge and skills that have great potential as resources for STEM learning.” – English Learners in STEM Subjects

Each and every student brings their own rich experiences and diverse culture to our classrooms. This is especially true for our English learners. Respecting our EL students’ diverse and rich culture—while providing them with an equitable and culturally relevant learning experience—is key to reinventing our classrooms and helping our students realize their potential. Language often appears to be a barrier to learning for English learners in the STEM classroom. This barrier is sometimes used as a catalyst for ELs not to have opportunities to engage in STEM learning, thus limiting their ability to be successful. How can we best leverage our English learners’ talents, knowledge, language, and experiences so they can be prepared to take advantage of all opportunities their futures may hold?

In October of 2018, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released its consensus report English Learners in STEM Subjects: Transforming Classrooms, Schools, and Lives. The report provides a rigorous, in-depth analysis of the research on ELs in STEM and language learning. It also details research-based recommendations for improving STEM learning outcomes for our PreK-12 students.

The report explores some important themes concerning ELs in its chapters:

The report identifies 24 conclusions based on he evidence uncovered, and it makes seven recommendations to help educators, policymakers, and systems remove the learning barriers that hinder EL students. These steps will help ensure that all EL students are provided equitable access to meaningful STEM learning opportunities. Some of the suggested recommendations include improving preservice and inservice teacher professional learning, fostering stronger family and community relationships, evaluating policies concerning ELs, and encouraging curriculum developers to create high-quality instructional resources and formative assessments for ELs in STEM subjects.

One important message from the report is that STEM instruction is not in conflict with increasing English learners’ English proficiency. ELs have the best chance for successful STEM learning outcomes when they are learning with theirs peers. “STEM subjects are best learned with the help of teachers who can support ELs in engaging in the disciplinary practices through which both disciplinary concepts and disciplinary language are developed simultaneously.”

To truly transform students’ futures, shifts in how English learners are taught STEM subjects is crucial.   English Learners in STEM Subjects offers a great framework from which educators, policymakers, families, curriculum providers, and community stakeholders can develop structures to support our EL students. In doing so, students are granted equal and equitable access to robust STEM learning experiences and are able to explore all of the possibilities of their promising futures. 

NSTA gives you the inspiration you need to pursue your dreams as well.


K. Renae Pullen is the K–6 science curriculum-instructional specialist for Caddo Parish Public Schools in Louisiana and is a NSTA/NCTM STEM Ambassador for 2018. Pullen served on The Committee on Supporting English Learners in STEM . She received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching in 2008. Follow her on Twitter: @KrenaeP 

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