Anyone in the education field knows that there are two major pushes right now in the classroom: more STEM integration and more literacy standard achievement. As an engineering teacher, STEM application comes quite easily, but I’ve always struggled to identify an authentic literacy component in my classroom, other than in critical reading of story problems. And, coupled with the fact that many students do not like to read, it has been difficult to engage students in literacy activities that they found interesting. Just about when I’d given up on finding something exciting to use, I went to the movie theater and saw a newly released film: The Martian. After discovering there was a book that preceded the film, I knew that I needed to make it a part of my class experience. My engineers need to see how effective problem solvers think, and this book provides that in a big way. It also opens the door to science fiction, and I hope this experience opens their eyes to reading.
I teach Principles of Engineering, a Project Lead the Way course. It is a mechanical engineering class focused on a mathematical and conceptual understanding of the way the world works, as well as how to solve problems, effectively work in groups, and how to use the design process to work effectively. Over the years of teaching the course, I have noticed that, in writing their reflections, my students struggle to write their thoughts professionally. I have also noticed a deficiency in critical reading of problem solving text. I knew I needed to find a way to support them, so I started reflecting on my own past as a student.
In high school, I was literally the worst student: I was the kind of kid who spent most of their time finding new ways to avoid reading assignments. I could not motivate myself to become immersed in literature, and, instead, read book summaries online or simply listened to discussions enough to get a grasp of the text. In hindsight, this was a poor decision and it affected me as a reader (and still does). Here’s the thing I didn’t anticipate: I see these very decisions in my students work. They see reading as a time suck, and would prefer not to do it. In a survey I conducted, most of my students indicated that they do not read for pleasure, and many indicated that they do not read class assigned books at all.
That’s where The Martian comes in: the book tells the story of a stranded Mark Watney on the surface of Mars. He must use his ingenuity and engineering knowledge to use a limited supply of equipment to survive alone for a significant amount of time. As the story progresses, Watney must continuously come up with new survival methods and craft solutions to problems that pop up at the worst times.
After seeing the movie, I immediately bought the book and read through it in less than three days. I knew that if I, a confessed no-reader, could get drawn into Watney’s experiences, my students might also. Last year’s cohort of engineers read The Martian together for the first time. We split the book into reading assignments and the students completed reading responses and comprehension checks on a regular basis. Although implementation was a little rough around the edges, I began to see growth in their comprehension as we moved through the book. Students who struggled with reading comprehension found that they could listen to the audiobook while they read along. Some students found they needed to revisit prior portions of the book to understand context, and did this without being assigned. I also recognized a growth in critical thinking and creativity in their later class projects, and I credit our reading for this. This year, I intend to implement new and creative responses to the text to allow students to be more creative with their engagement with the book and each other.
Principles of Engineering is a full curriculum, and I strongly hesitated to add another element into the mix. That said, The Martian unit is quickly becoming a favorite component to the class. So, here’s the million dollar question: how can you integrate more literacy in your class? You don’t need to read an amazing book with your class to do this: find authentic opportunities to engage your students in text that is related to your content and let them explore it.
Growth happens when students think a topic is relevant to them; it is our responsibility as educators to find ways to hook them.
Today's blog post comes to us from Mr. Isaac Adams. Mr. Adams is a Science and Engineering teacher at Pike High School. He is in his fourth year as an educator and strives to find new and exciting ways to make learning relevant and engaging to his students.