Students learn English while studying science and math.
USF’s Sarah Capitelli has helped turn the San Francisco Exploratorium’s renowned,
hands-on science into language lessons for non-English speaking students — work
that’s received rave reviews.
The curriculum is being hailed in the Sonoma Valley Unified School
District (SVUSD), where K-5 teachers say it dramatically improves student
engagement and grasp of both English and science. And the Exploratorium’s Institute
for Inquiry (IFI), which leads the project, plans to add the new curriculum to
its workshops that attract hundreds of professional educators from across the
A profoundly different approach
“We built the language curriculum around science topics that students are
interested in talking about,” Capitelli, an assistant professor of teacher
education, says of her collaborative effort with IFI science educators.
In one lesson, students pull and push nuts and bolts around a table,
using a variety of magnets. They stack magnets to make them more powerful. They
make predictions and record the results. And they learn language to describe
what they observe on their own terms in English.
“It’s profoundly different to learn about magnetism with a table full of
magnets that attract and repel than to learn about it in a textbook,” Capitelli
Shadows, ladybugs, and snails
In others lessons, students study light and shadows using flashlights in
a darkened classroom, or see magnification up close when they examine ladybugs
and snails through varying strengths of magnifying glasses.
“It’s amazing,” says Gennifer Caven, a third grade teacher at SVUSD’s El
Verano Elementary School, where about 80 percent of students are
English-language learners. “Students are eager to share their scientific
observations and discoveries by talking and writing in English.”
$3M federal education grant
El Verano was the first school in the district to partner with the
Exploratorium to train teachers and adopt the curriculum. The entire district
joined the partnership after IFI won a $3 million U.S. Department of Education
innovation grant to fund the expansion. About 80 teachers have been trained in
the curriculum, and almost 2,000 students have benefited from the new approach,
designed to teach English, science, and creative thinking.
“Sarah has helped us develop educational experiences that are at the forefront of the field,” says Lynn Rankin, IFI
director. “Very few organizations offer professional development for teachers
that bridges language development and inquiry-based science. It’s so
valuable because it draws on students’ innate curiosity about the world.”
Tapping students' creative thinking
“Too often language development is
taught in isolation with an emphasis on the bits and pieces that focus on
grammar and vocabulary,” Rankin says. “Learning language in context gives it meaning.”
As California and the nation race to educate more scientists,
mathematicians, and creative thinkers, we can’t afford to leave students behind
because they weren’t brought up speaking English, Rankin says. This curriculum
develops those skills and also teaches the students English so that they can
participate in our economy and government to the fullest extent, she says.
by Ed Carpenter | Office of Communications and Marketing »email firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter @usfcanews