Effective communication is an important factor in any field, whether you are a teacher, a nurse, an administrative assistant, a chemist or a computer programmer. Today’s students, regardless of which path they will choose, need to be able to express their ideas clearly, communicate effectively, be persuasive, and accept criticism gracefully, in order to encourage innovation and social change. What better place to learn this than a world language classroom! Not only do they learn important communication strategies, but they also learn to communicate in a different language and make connections across cultures, a skill that will only gain importance in our global economy.
How will we accomplish this in our limited instructional time without cutting out other important aspects of language learning? Look at what you already teach with “MINT” colored glasses! (STEM is MINT in German). Let’s put on these glasses:
Do you teach weather in level 1? Here is your first opportunity to not only teach vocabulary, but also numbers, basic math skills, map reading, temperature conversions, and the fact that Fahrenheit is not the most widely used unit of temperature measurement. You can take it one step further and have students compare high, average, and low temperatures in their hometown to a town in the target culture.
Another good topic for beginning levels is the metric system. Converting recipes in the food chapter and shoe and clothing sizes in the shopping unit will not only be practical when students travel abroad or participate in an exchange, but it will also make the lesson more engaging. “Window shopping” online can bring an authentic vibe to any classroom. Give students a budget and send them to pre-selected websites that sell clothing items to shop for an imaginary family. This will expose them to the challenges of converting clothing and shoe sizes, as well as to navigating foreign currencies.
Simple coding games, whose directions can be found on-line, are a great way to incorporate logical thinking into the middle levels of instruction. Other activities can include writing and following directions, sequencing a story, creating a cartoon, or even telling a story via emojis. Imagine all the language students will hear and use through these activities! And if you give them group work, students will have to visualize processes, negotiate meaning, accept criticism gracefully, ask for clarifying information if something does not make sense, and defend their choices in the target language.
I generally have my intermediate low/mid students create a game for one of our units. I provide them with paper, visuals, and note cards and give them an hour to create. The most important part is to write clear step-by-step instructions so other groups can play the game. One challenge is to get them to stay in the target language during the creation process because they get so excited that they forget to not speak English, thus the teacher needs to have a procedure in place to hold them accountable. My way to do that is to have a language monitor role in every group. The students really enjoy playing each other’s games in the end.
I use another activity in my level 3 class. Together, we read a novel in which a boy gets trapped in his computer game, and the character from the game takes on his human role. In the context of this story, I pre-teach computer vocabulary. We also cover the Pythagorean Theorem in German, with which students are generally familiar. We discuss current trends in video and computer games, and which games they enjoy playing. This helps to simultaneously capture the students’ interest and develop their language skills. While reading the book, the students pick their own vocabulary terms in addition to the important words that I choose for them.
The AP and IB overriding themes include science and technology topics, so it is easy to incorporate STEM themes into the upper-level curriculum. Renewable energy and recycling technology are popular topics. My students pick their favorite topic and create a video on recycling, conserving energy, a family discussion presenting the pros and cons of a new car purchase, or a presentation or 3-D model about the most desirable renewable energy source.
STEM skills do not have to be limited to these topics, however. Basic statistics is another area that lends itself easily to integration into just about any world language topic. Statistical activities may include interpreting graphs, collecting data and creating graphs on all kinds of topics. For example, after learning how important sleep is for the well-being of teenagers, the students can take a survey among their peers and turn the results into a pie or bar graph. As a follow-up activity, they then compare the results with the recommendation of the National Sleep Foundation and write a letter, an e-mail, create a meme, or give a speech to share their findings.
Graphs and other visuals are good tools for differentiated STEM activities, especially in multi-level classes. The students at the intermediate low level answer the English questions in English, the mid-level students answer the target-language question in English and the intermediate high students receive target-language questions that they will answer in the target language.
My favorite STEM-colored activity in upper-level classes is the “Golden Ratio” activity created by my colleague Debra Mol as part of the AP theme Beauty and Aesthetics unit. The students first learn about the importance of the Golden Ratio in nature, architecture, fashion, and the human body. They then calculate the Golden Ratio of famous pieces of art. Finally, students calculate measurements to determine if their body follows the rule as well. This is a great way to infuse math into language instruction while teaching vocabulary, practicing communication skills and preparing for real-life scenarios.
We may not see the results of our efforts right away, but the tools we give the students now will one day pay off. So, keep those MINT-colored glasses on, and add some STEM to your activities.