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).