I recently read this post about the role of language learning in STEM education. I was sold on the idea of MELTS—Math, Engineering, Language, Technology & Science. The concept resonated with me in meaningful ways. The curricular cross-pollination of language and science is something I have explored with students and colleagues over the years–through projects, planned conversations and spontaneous moments. As recently as last week, I saw the Joan Miró inspired cover of Nature and used this as an entry point for dialog with two science teachers. Who was Miró? Why does his work teach us about STEAM education? How can a better understanding of languages and the arts make for better scientists?
I am lucky to have had great collaborations like these with science teachers over the years. I have parlayed these into many projects, the most notable of which are the are the Spanish Science Symposium and the Tech Tourney. The success of these project stemmed from fact that the content was authentic–ecology, conservation, innovation–and the frameworks were familiar. These were real issues expressed in real frameworks in authentic language. My experience has been that students respond with an “I got this!” once they got themselves out of the silo mentality. As teachers, we saw that approaching these topics in a foreign languages classroom gave students both a new perspective from which they could explore. The projects and the collaborations I described above lead me to believe that MELTS has potential for four reasons:
1) Language classes activate content. The best language classrooms are full of authentic content: literature, news, music, film, nonfiction, political cartoons, sports pages, maps, historical and scientific evidence, and more. This means that students are not just learning about the language, they are learning in and with the language. When language becomes the medium, not the menial task, every door is open and every topic is fair game. This is perhaps my favorite part of being a language teacher. I have said many times before that the highest compliment a student can pay me is to say “You know, señor, this is just like my history/English/science/art class…but in Spanish!” That is when I know I have engaged them in deeper learning, not just “language learning.” This learning can be exciting when this content is topical and requires students to examine and activate their understandings from other subjects. From my perspective, the more students use the language to look at content from different perspectives, the better.
2) Science and technology provide great topics for debate and dialog. I have had some amazing conversations with my students about everything from environmental issues in South America to the omnipresence of technology in our lives. One of my all-time-favorite conversation starters is Marco Denevi’s microcuento, “Apocalipsis.” What is the impact of our choices on our local environment? What is the impact of our choices on those around the globe? What is the impact of these choices on our own physical and emotional well-being? Who is in control, anyway? Beyond Denevi’s story, there are so many ways to approach topics that have real-life impact on citizens of the world, from medicine to clean water to clean elections to access to information and media.
3) Understanding the humanities and languages can potentially make for better scientists and technologists. It would seem that the evolution of STEM to STEAM to MELTS represents an increasing understanding that strictly hard science study makes for “hard scientists.” The ability to express and interpret meaning is essential in our times. Science and technology can get us most of the way but cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary understanding can complete the process. Much more than irregular verb forms, these understandings are the foundation of language study. Language classes teach us about the beliefs, expressions and social norms inherent in any culture. These can mean the difference between an initiative succeeding or failing in a globalized marketplace. Endless research and commentary, for example this piece in Scientific American, tell us that technological innovation needs to be tempered with inquiry inherent in the humanities. On the macro level, language and cultural study can help teams collaborate on projects around the world. Nuanced understanding of language and culture can help researchers gather and interpret data more precisely. Beyond mere translation, language study can give researchers the ability to find solutions that are both scientifically and culturally appropriate. Better understanding of languages may help close what appears to be a language divide in data visualization.
On a personal level, I can say unequivocally that my training as a language teacher has trumped my tech training in preparing me for my new role as instructional technologist. I can translate teachers’ frustrations into requests and questions my IT colleagues can understand. Conversely, I can express my IT colleagues’ input and instructions into words that teachers can understand.
4) Language learning screams for STEAM. (Yelps for MELTS?) Cassette tapes, SCOLA videos, interactive Web 2.0 activities, Duolingo, Skype Translator, OCR translation with Google Translate, and now VR–this list represents the evolution of language technology in my 30 years as a language learner and teacher. It seems tech has always been a part of language instruction. I think it is fair to say that language teachers tend towards innovative technology to transport their students to places they can not get to physically. Obviously there is a linguistic impact for students as they see new sites, hear new accents and negotiate new challenges. At the same time, these journeys into sight and sound allow students to experience new environments and see how others live. How do others live? How then shall we live? These are questions that language teachers can take the lead on with thoughtfully integrated technology.
In the end, I hope this is just the beginning of a more integrated approach to study across disciplines at all levels. This works in two-way immersion programs, many of which are in high demand. The benefits for functional fluency are enormous and, as I made the case above, the non-linguistic outcomes can be even more powerful. Full STEAM–make that MELTS–ahead!