STEMing the Tide: Writing to Learn in Science

STEMing the Tide: Writing to Learn in Science

Pamela B. Childers (The McCallie School, USA) and Michael J. Lowry (The McCallie School, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0068-3.ch002


The goals of STEM education are similar to the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) movement, and they complement each other in best educating students for their futures in the workforce or academia. In this chapter, the authors describe ways in which science teachers may use writing to reach the goals of STEM education.
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Background Of Writing Across The Curriculum

The WAC movement had its beginnings in the work of James Britton, Nancy Martin and their colleagues at the University of London’s Schools Council Project in the 1960s and 1970s. They studied “language across the curriculum” in English schools and concluded, “in theory and practice language was integral to learning as well as to communication in all disciplines” (Farrell-Childers, Gere & Young, 1994). When this concept moved across the Atlantic, supporters of WAC in the U.S. were concerned about two things: students’ ability to communicate and their “abilities as learners, critical thinkers and problem solvers” (Farrell-Childers, Gere & Young, 1994). Those first-generation WAC programs believed writing as a tool for learning would help achieve these goals. By the 1980s, teachers and scholars expanded that purely cognitive approach to WAC to include social dimensions as well. Therefore, WAC involved not just learning and written communication, but also writing as a social process that takes place in a social context. “If we want students to be effective communicators, to be successful engineers and historians, then we cannot separate form from content, writing from knowledge, action from context” (Farrell-Childers, Gere & Young, 1994). These ideas also have run through the STEM education program (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2011) just as WAC programs began to stress the role of collaboration in learning, of audience in communication, and of social context in learning to write and writing to learn. Another similarity has been that the social environments of classrooms have changed to nurture and challenge students to advocate the way individual classrooms were connected to other classrooms within schools and to larger social networks of community, district and state. A fourth premise included social action in which students supported further personal and social goals well beyond the classroom. Since those early years, WAC has expanded as a movement to include all communication across the curriculum--reading, listening and speaking skills--because it is an “inclusive and evolving movement” (Farrell-Childers, Gere & Young, 1994). Just as with STEM education initiatives, the successful programs have been ones that have attained support at all levels of the system and encouraged innovative teaching and learning practices.

In the 2011 policy research brief, “Reading and Writing across the Curriculum,” the National Council of Teachers of English describes the benefits of a reading and writing across the curriculum program to enhance student achievement in all subjects. In one study reading and writing are essential to learning because students have needed “strategies for reading course material and opportunities to write thoughtfully about it” in order to master concepts in all disciplines (Allington, 2002). However, the brief acknowledges that student achievement is enhanced by teachers who focus on helping their students develop strategies for reading and writing in their specific content areas (NCTE, 16). For example, Brockton High School has moved from the very bottom on statewide test scores in 1999 to outscoring 90% of Massachusetts schools by integrating reading and writing into all classes across the curriculum (Dillon, 2010; The Achievement Gap Initiative, 2009).

Further research in the area of WAC has proven the following:

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