In 2012, three women collaborated to create a better science and math learning experience for K-12 English language learners and students in the College of Education at Oregon State.
A learning process for all parties, the program helps undergraduate and graduate students learn to teach math and science to a diverse group of K-12 students. The program is a place where eager, energetic after-school students attach themselves to the legs of college students who are still learning to be sophisticated mentors to the children around them.
So far, it’s a story of success.
A need for the program
Kathryn Ciechanowski, an assistant professor of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and bilingual education worked as an elementary school teacher before she decided she wanted to make an impact outside of her own classroom.
“SueAnn Bottoms and I started talking about the connect and disconnect of math and science teaching methods compared to the rest of the school programs,” she says. “We wanted to figure out how we can integrate these subjects and not teach them in isolation.”
Bottoms is an assistant professor of Science Education at Oregon State. In 2000, she came to OSU to work with the SMILE (Science & Math Investigative Learning Experiences) after-school program. Bottoms became the associate director a few years later and decided to try something new: FIESTAS.
The program’s goal is to enhance the knowledge of science and math-related topics of Latino and underrepresented youth in the third, fourth and fifth grades.
Through FIESTAS, Bottoms aims “to disrupt the commonplace, and eliminate the apprehension of teaching science and math in K-12 schools.”
The pre-service teachers are part of the Science and Mathematics Education courses in the Oregon State College of Education where they gain field experience teaching elementary students. Pre-service teachers conduct activities with small groups of students while two other pre-service teachers take notes and videotape the session. They take their experience in the field back into the Oregon State classroom to analyze and reflect on their practice. Reviewing the activities allows them to develop an effective practice to teach science and mathematics to children.
Ana Lucia Fonseca is a 4-H STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) instructor and has experience working in summer camps with Spanish-speaking students across the U.S and at Oregon State. She became a major influence in developing the program with Bottoms and Ciechanowski.
“It’s grown in capacity so much where we are doing things I never would have been able to do as just one person,” Fonseca says.
Oregon State provides solutions
There are challenges for K-12 ESOL students trying to learn science and math, and the FIESTAS program is a learning experience for developing a better approach to these subjects.
“We aim to change the context of science from, not what science is, but what it means to teach science,” Bottoms says. “We still use a lot of the tools teachers use in the classroom but we changed the setting.”
Elementary educators today need to adapt to teaching a linguistically diverse classroom with a range of educational needs. ESOL students are often intimidated to speak or ask questions for fear of not being understood.
Ciechanowski’s epiphany about integrating campus resources into their FIESTAS program was a turning point.
“It occurred to me that we work at Oregon State, and Oregon State provides resources for our community to keep an engaged model and address these linguistic problems,” Ciechanowski says.
Students encouraging success
Across campus, Arabic speakers in the INTO OSU program learned about the FIESTAS program and are now enthusiastic volunteers.
INTO OSU has a similar mission to that of FIESTAS: to increase the number of international students at Oregon State and improve the overall level of service Oregon State provides them.
INTO students volunteer their time to participate in field trips with after-school groups and help translate for the young students. In turn, the K-12 ESOL students feel much more comfortable and able to communicate in their learning environment.
Ciechanowski recalls one memorable moment during a session featuring the collaboration of a pre-service teacher, and Arabic-speaking INTO OSU volunteer and an Arabic-speaking elementary-school student working on his final project.
“They coached the little boy what to say in English about chlorine and cleaning the water at the pool,” Ciechanowski says. “He said it carefully and with a lot of support, but it really shows the power of bringing together these resources and how that really helped him learn English.”
Fonseca says the relationship between the teachers and the students is extremely important.
“There is a ratio of one teacher for every two to three children,” Fonseca says. “Which is something these kids never get. It makes the learning of science and math so much smoother for children.”
The FIESTAS developers believe individualized attention leads to success, and Ciechanowski says that by the end of a term working with the FIESTAS program, students build confidence and English fluency within STEM subjects.
FIESTAS also helps the pre-service teachers become aware of the diversity and action needed to support growing populations of bilingual students.
“One of my students said, ‘It was a chance to learn how to be culturally competent with training wheels.’” Ciechanowski says.
Communities and families involved
Partnerships and collaboration are vital to FIESTAS.
“We have connections with 4-H, INTO OSU students, Boys and Girls Club Corvallis, the Oregon State College of Education and College of Agricultural Sciences, the Corvallis School District, and local businesses,” Ciechanowski says.
Family involvement is also important to the FIESTAS program.
“We have the Families Math and Science Night event that started with SMILE where we get to engage the families,” Fonesca says. “We really learn from them about what would be helpful for their kids and make this program culturally relevant so we can come up with a method and design that celebrates their culture through science as well.”
Partnering with Spanish-speaking interns through College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) and Association of Latin American Students (ALAS) has allowed the team to communicate and gather ideas from Latino families that informs the work on the FIESTAS project.
Partnerships with programs like CAMP and ALAS and hosting family events are important for the pre-service teachers as well.
“We want the pre-service teachers to understand that students aren’t just in the classroom, they have families and a background and it is good to understand roots of the kids they are teaching,” Bottoms says.
Jenny de La Hoz, a graduate student studying free choice learning through the College of Education agrees.
“Giving pre-service teachers an opportunity to work with families and reflect on those experience is the most important aspect of this model,” de La Hoz says.
De La Hoz was born in Columbia and has a background in working with Latino communities. She says working with the FIESTAS program has been extremely helpful to her own academic research.
The leaders feel that FIESTAS has a wide impact on the Corvallis community, culture, learning environments and relationships.
“This broad project that is growing. We are doing organization and research, but it’s all about partnerships. It’s taking on a life of its own and it’s growing at this rate that is unbelievable,” Bottoms says.
Fonesca agrees and says relationships are the most important part of building the FIESTAS program.
“The one-on-one relationship helps develop pure joy for learning.” She says. “Students are so inspired by the pre-service teachers and the community partners they get to do projects with.”
Program leaders Bottoms, Fonesca, and Ciechanowski, are in the process of completing articles and presenting at conferences around the nation in hopes that the FIESTAS model can inform collaborations and school programs across the U.S.
“I’ve never seen something that involves so many communities coming together,” Ciechanowski says. “Teaching in this way has become so powerful that I cannot imagine teaching without it.”