In his State of the State address on Jan. 21, Governor Jay Nixon talked about a STEM initiative to help Missouri universities purchase state-of-the-art equipment, expand lab space and produce more graduates in fast-growing STEM fields. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and employers have said they need more workers with adequate STEM skills. An estimated 10 million jobs in those fields could be available by the end of the decade. In Missouri, the 2020 projected growth for STEM occupations is higher than the expected combined growth for all occupations in the state. Pay for those jobs is also higher. Students who are interested in STEM fields could face bright futures in fulfilling careers. To help build the needed STEM skills, stronger math standards make sense. But what do English language arts (ELA) standards have to do with it? Plenty. Here’s why:
The Department surveyed hiring managers, supervisors and other STEM professionals about necessary work skills. Of course they answered that technical skills are required, but 100 percent of them also said that communication skills are either important or very important. Think about it; people working in science, technology, engineering and math still have to be able to make presentations (oral communication) and write reports and grants (written communication). They also need to be able to read and understand complex information. Strong reading comprehension, writing and speaking skills are critical to a future in technological fields.
In a special issue of Science, the editors state:
Science is about generating and interpreting data, but it is also about communicating
facts, ideas and hypotheses. Scientists write, speak, debate, visualize, listen, and
read about their specialties daily. For students unfamiliar with the language or style
of science, the deceptively simple act of communication can be a barrier to understanding
or becoming involved with science.
Building that ability in students is a clear focus of the Common Core State Standards. In fact, the full title of the ELA standards is Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. The standards call for increased non-fiction reading – up to 70 percent for high school seniors across the students’ entire day – but ELA teachers need to use class time to cover great works of fiction and non-fiction. That’s why non-fiction reading should be emphasized across all subjects, including science and technology, to help students better comprehend complex technical material.
ELA skills are critical for all students, including those considering a future STEM career. They must be able to communicate clearly and persuasively and to read and understand complex information. If you want to raise a rocket scientist, make sure you raise a reader and writer as well.