Language Skills Blossom From STEM An SLP uses STEM—science, technology, engineering, mathematics—vocabulary and activities to cultivate language and literacy skills among older students. In the Limelight
In the Limelight  |   May 01, 2017
Language Skills Blossom From STEM
Author Notes
  • Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader.
    Shelley D. Hutchins is content producer/editor for The ASHA Leader.×
Article Information
Normal Language Processing / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   May 01, 2017
Language Skills Blossom From STEM
The ASHA Leader, May 2017, Vol. 22, 24-25. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.22052017.24
The ASHA Leader, May 2017, Vol. 22, 24-25. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.22052017.24
Name: Jennifer Walz Garrett, PhD, CCC-SLP
Title: Associate professor, University of Northern Iowa
Hometown: Cedar Falls, Iowa
Jennifer Garrett has developed a passion for finding inventive ways to treat language and literacy disorders in older students. A couple of years ago, she was searching for a new approach and found one in a less-than-obvious place: science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.
“When I was working in the schools, I noticed some students who struggle with literacy seem to prefer nonfiction rather than fiction,” Garrett says, “so when I was searching for new approaches to tackle language and literacy issues, I tried to think of ways to incorporate student preferences and had the idea of using STEM curricula.”
Budding STEM ideas
Now an associate professor at the University of Northern Iowa, Garrett has expanded her ideas about blending STEM education with language interventions. Thanks to a grant she received a couple of years ago—to treat literacy and communication issues in students with more significant needs—Garrett was able to design her first STEM intervention program.
The speech-language pathologist—along with two graduate students who were working on their master’s project—collaborated with a teacher at a rural high school about two hours away from the university. With Garrett’s guidance, the grad students took the lead on developing lesson plans for the teacher, who has a classroom of high school students all using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Each lesson targets Common Core State Standards tier-two vocabulary using a science curriculum the school acquired through a grant.
“How can we teach these students to access this vocabulary—and synonyms—on their AAC device using STEM materials and activities?” This was the question Garrett posed to her students as they created lessons.
Experiments with pinballs and ramps provided answers. Garrett chose these two STEM units because they offer flexibility in designing activities and provided new materials for the classroom. Ramps can be configured virtually any way as long as the marble keeps rolling, and pinball setups feature various obstacles and launching devices, which can also be arranged in myriad formations. In addition, both lessons featured scientific vocabulary—such as motion, force, reaction and momentum—that also relates to other academic subjects.
Not only did Garrett, her students and the classroom teacher—in addition to an onsite SLP and paraeducator—address STEM education through vocabulary goals and hands-on experiments, but the way they taught these lessons involved STEM concepts. Garrett used live videoconferencing technology to help the class implement her activities. This initial project yielded great results, such as students in the classroom expanding their vocabulary and demonstrating more interest in science. Garrett, along with two new graduate students, continues to work with this teacher to produce new STEM-based lessons covering vocabulary, language and literacy skills.

SLPs learned about science curriculum … and how to pick out vocabulary to address. Science educators saw what SLPs do and learned how to emphasize communication and literacy in their teaching.

Growing STEM programs
Excited about the success of her first blending of STEM education with language and literacy intervention, Garrett looked for something bigger. And yet another grant—this one from the university to fund new STEM-related summer camps—helped her do just that. She launched a summer camp last year to treat students with language and reading delays using STEM activities.
The day camp was open to third- through ninth-graders with communication disorders or language delays or who are at-risk readers. Twelve campers—two who use AAC, several students with autism, and others with language or reading delays—attended the weeklong session. Eight of Garrett’s speech-language pathology graduate students, plus two student teachers in the science education program, worked with the campers.
More than 10 experiments and demonstrations focused on ways science and math can seem like magic. Activities like card tricks wove together tier-two vocabulary words with counting and statistics goals. Students also focused heavily on reading and writing skills to go along with experiments. Campers had so much fun, according to Garrett, they didn’t feel like they were participating in traditional treatment sessions.
“The camp was also a great way to get science educators and SLPs working together,” Garrett adds. “SLPs learned about science curricula, what directions look like in experiments and how to pick out vocabulary to address. Science educators saw what SLPs do and learned how to emphasize communication and literacy in their teaching.”
Although the grant provided one-time-only funding, Garrett plans to operate the camp again this summer. She also hopes to continue growing her combined STEM/language and literacy lessons through other venues, such as collaborating with more teachers in her area and using the approaches at the university speech and hearing clinic.
The professor also feels these lessons might inspire students to become communication sciences and disorders professionals. “A large part of our field relates to science,” Garrett says. “By exposing middle or high school students to the science part of our work, we also raise awareness and become more visible for those who might want to be a part of our field.”
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May 2017
Volume 22, Issue 5