Where do I start? Thoughts on approaching the task of devising materials for STEM students.

Following a recent request to an EAP discussion list for help with devising an EAP course for students of Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics (STEM), my friend and co-author, Jenifer Spencer, has contributed this post with her suggestions. See also materials for STEM on the EAP Materials page

EAP tutors sometimes react with alarm when facing the task of devising courses and materials for STEM subjects. These reflections on how we can tackle this challenge have emerged from my experience of preparing STEM materials in different universities and freelance work with STEM  students and research professionals.

Available online at https://www.preciseconsultants.co.uk/news/the-rise-of-offshore-robotics-in-oil-and-gas/39738/

 Where do I start? How do I find out how people in this field communicate with each other?   How do I decide what language to focus on? Where do I find suitable texts to use as a basis for language study? The quick answer to all  three questions is ‘Look near at hand not far away!’ The best place to start is the department’s own website. The profiles of staff with their research interests become a starting point to introduce the discourse of the field. They provide useful introductory texts and links to open access publications by the lecturer, as well as useful models for initial writing tasks, prompting students to write about their own background and areas of interest.  These ‘local’ sources give you an immediate insight into what people are talking about in the field and how they say it. Other sources available in the university’s website are the Repository or Archive where previous theses are stored. These are particularly useful as examples of the  range of  genre structures – there is no single type of genre within a particular discipline or field.

Moreover, the focus of research and courses in particular disciplines can be quite different and often multidisciplinary. When writing a language course for Petroleum Engineers, I was surprised to find the course content and research focus were quite different from those in the university where I had previously taught. I was used to a  focus on computer modelling of chemical interactions in rocks and fluids. However, in the new university, the focus was mainly on geology and describing the different rock strata, resulting in completely different styles of discourse.  

Deciding which language to focus on can seem particularly challenging. My own experience, from accompanying  individual students and researchers  on their journey of drafting theses and journal papers, is that the most useful starting point is to focus on ontology and epistemology.  The latter is widely covered in EAP needs analysis and the resulting materials and methodology. In best practice courses, students are encouraged to ask ‘How do we know this? What evidence is there?’ and trained in critical thinking skills to answer these questions using the language appropriate to this aspect of academic practice. However ontology is rarely mentioned or glossed over (usually with a few quick quotes from standard research manuals).

Ontology may seem like an arcane concept, used by mediaeval theologians disputing how many angels fit on the point of a pin. However this word has re-emerged  in the field of computing, as a key word in programming discourse. The theologians, quite reasonably, decided that if they were going to conduct discourse about supernatural entities, they had to be able to explain  what sort of thing they actually were, their essence. This is the same case regarding the entities and concepts that are the subjects of scientific research. The language that has evolved to fulfil this need is often rather invisible. It answers the questions that search for the essence of what something is and answer questions like -What sort of thing is it? (e.g., a substance, an object, a model, a concept) ‘What can it do? (i.e. does it have agency?) and ‘What can you do to it?’ For example light can travel (the strongest form of agency, reflected by the use of intransitive verbs). It can illuminate other objects (transitively), and it can be (passively) reflected in a mirror or refracted in a transparent medium.

Similarly, consider the language used for the various components of matter.  In a student’s PhD thesis, I found that, prompted by a commercial grammar correction app,  he had substituted the general noun particles as a cohesive device for  molecules, ions  and atoms. On discussion we decided that the problem was that particles is used to describe small mobile entities whose exact nature (ontology)  has not yet been established (so we refer to dust particles or sub-atomic particles). This is an example of how this approach to language can involve a critical thinking partnership involving both the student and teacher.

The following two paragraphs are taken from the webpage of a robotics professor and might be used in the ways suggested above as a starting point for developing language work for students embarking on study in this field. 

Autonomous and resident robots have the potential to revolutionise how we work in the most extreme environments and contribute positively to our net-zero goals. Deployed offshore, in nuclear plants and in space, they can be supervised by a team of expert operators and analysts from the comfort of remote operation centres, bringing the right expertise to the situation at hand whilst reducing the carbon footprint and cost of remote operations

The building blocks of these systems are a combination of smart sensors, advanced control, embedded processing and situation awareness enabling the robots to stay safe and carry out complex operations whilst providing adapted feedback to the human supervisor. The shared autonomy models developed, enable people and robots to truly cooperate.

When reading this text, the teacher and students can discuss how the italicised verbs illustrate the agency and interactivity of the robots, answering the ontological questions What can it do? What can be done to it/ with it?

Note that the writer opts for these systems as a cohesive device to link the topic of robots at the beginning of the second paragraph. As a lay person, I might have opted for machines, as in the online Oxford dictionary definition:  ‘a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer’.  However, the professional in the field views the robots as systems. focusing on the programmable aspect, for which context system is more natural.

Students can search other texts for collocations that embody key concepts, such as  those underlined.

(Thanks to Professor Yvan Petillot of Heriot-Watt University for permission to use this extract from his profile page).  

Know how to perform as and for an audience

I’ve been attending concerts in the Edinburgh Festival, back onstage again this year in open-air venues with careful social distancing. Many of the performers are visibly moved to be back in front of a live audience again. One aspect of the Festival programming I’m really enjoying is the mix of classical music, folk and jazz. I’ve been struck by the different ways that audiences are expected to – or allowed to – interact with the players in these different musical genres. One really noticeable difference is when you are allowed to clap. In folk and jazz it’s OK to clap whenever the performer stops playing, even if it’s halfway through a set, but don’t dare do this in classical concerts. You’re only expected to clap once a complete piece (sonata, concerto, symphony, song cycle) has reached the final movement. So if you don’t know the particular piece you’re listening to, which is quite likely because the performers like to try out more obscure pieces, you have to guess when they’ve reached the end. Sometimes they have to help you by getting up from the piano stool or putting down their instruments as a signal that you can clap.

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The power of PowerPoint

Is it time to unplug the PowerPoint for more genuine learning tot ake place?

In my early teaching career, I met a colleague who explained that you only need three things to teach: a piece of chalk, a watch and a hanky (to blow your nose). This minimalist approach found expression in Scott Thornbury’s Dogme Approach in the late nineties and noughties – borrowing the tenets of Lars von Trier’s Dogme approach to film making. At that time, Thornbury and colleagues were responding to a flood of materials: coursebook, video, online, that seemed to get in the way of learning:

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A sense of research-mindedness

Introducing research philosophy for low proficiency EAP students

The BALEAP Competency Framework asks EAP professionals to ‘recognize the importance of applying to their practice the standards expected of students and other academic staff’. One of the fundamental standards concerns the role of research in building new knowledge and underpinning teaching at university. ELT teachers moving to EAP contexts often have only a rudimentary understanding of academic research and scholarship. They tend to conceptualise research as finding out what they don’t know rather than exploring what a discipline doesn’t know and wants to discover. The former is the kind of research done by journalists or by undergraduate students, who often ‘rediscover’ some of the key research outcomes in their discipline by repeating the seminal studies. This kind of research – also done through a literature review – is important at the outset of a research project to uncover gaps in disciplinary knowledge, which can justify research aims. However, the research that is most valued at university attempts to achieve greater understanding of the world in order to make better predictions about the future.

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Academic cultures

Shifting the focus from students’ national academic cultures to target academic dsciplines when characterising learning styles

One of the aims of EAP programmes is to help international students adapt to the teaching and learning expectations of the academic culture they wish to join. It is assumed that the study practices they experienced in their own country will be different from those in the new context. In particular, their expectations about using and referencing ideas from authoritative sources may be different. I recently reviewed a teacher development framework, which recommended that EAP teachers take account of differences in academic cultures when analysing needs, preparing lessons and giving feedback to students. But I wonder how useful or even possible it is for EAP teachers to understand differences between academic cultures in ways that can be applied in a classroom.

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