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Today’s English Learners, Tomorrow’s Scientists

Corey Mitchell, contributing writer for Education Week, has recently published an article that details how language barriers can lead immigrant students to pursue STEM courses in higher education.

A 2018 study published by researchers from Duke and Stanford universities draws on federal data to conclude that while “20 percent of U.S.-born college students major in science, technology, engineering, and math-related subjects,” immigrant students pursue STEM courses at much higher percentages. Mitchell writes that “among immigrant children who arrived in the United States after age 10 and came from Mexico or Central American or Asian countries, more than a third were STEM majors.”

Immigrant students “earn about 20 percent more credits in math-intensive courses than they do in English-based courses,” primarily because they are more likely to steer away from social sciences and humanities courses. As such, these students are much better prepared to pursue STEM careers.

Marcos Rangel, an assistant professor at Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy, believes that school systems should adjust how they perceive immigrant students:

“We tend to look at immigrant kids [who don’t speak English] coming into schools as a drag on the system … but they bring some specific abilities. The absolute difficulty with English may turn into a relative advantage in math and science subjects.”

To this point, Mitchell is keen to address a seemingly contradictory 2018 study released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) which states that schools “should do more to ensure that current and former English-learners have access to STEM education.” As he writes in the article, “English-learner and immigration student populations aren’t necessarily the same in the United States.” As we know, a majority of English learners in the U.S. are not immigrant students.

Given this information, Mitchell questions why U.S. school systems continuously fail to reach English learners: “If foreign-born students who aren’t fluent in English can access and excel in STEM courses here, why aren’t U.S.-born English-learners afforded those same opportunities?”

Per the report from the NASEM, the reason for this discrepancy is that “Too often schools operate under the incorrect assumption that proficiency in English is a prerequisite to meaningful engagement with STEM learning and fail to leverage ELs’ meaningful engagement with content and disciplinary practices as a route to language proficiency.”

Please find the complete article here.


-Melissa Hoppie, Graduate Research Assistant

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TWIN-CS advances the Catholic tradition of academic excellence by empowering Catholic schools to systematically transform from a monolingual to multilingual educational model in the service of vibrant culturally diverse populations.

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