Broadening Conceptions of STEM Learning “STEM Smart Skills” and School-Based Multilingual Family Engagement

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Emily Suh
Lisa Hoffman
Alan Zollman


STEM education researchers are well aware of the need for increased access and inclusivity in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education for students from culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) backgrounds. One of the many barriers for students from underserved cultural and linguistic groups is the difficulty of connecting families to school models of STEM education. This is one reason we advocate for improvement in culturally relevant STEM curriculum and content instruction. This commentary does not focus on STEM content instruction, although we certainly believe children from CLD communities deserve high expectations and high quality, culturally sustaining STEM pedagogy. In this article we discuss non-curricular skills that are vital to success in STEM – and the advantages of sharing with family members the importance of particular essential life skills that support STEM learning. Communicating these essential “STEM Smart skills” showcases the power and influence that families have in kids’ STEM learning. In this commentary we describe a school-based family STEM night that included a demonstration that success in a STEM task is not based primarily on content knowledge but on “STEM Smart skills.” Many family members found success in the activity, regardless of parents’ educational level or background in STEM. Family members’ rich life experiences, critical thinking skills, and cultural knowledge include these “STEM Smart skills.” We argue that teachers and schools should communicate to families about these life skills. This focus can benefit students by highlighting family members’ power and role in teaching and modeling essential skills for students’ STEM success. This focus also can benefit educators by challenging common stereotypes about families from underrepresented cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In this way, acknowledgement of “STEM Smart” life skills could play a small part in dismantling structural racism and inequitable power relations between schools and communities.

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Practice / Theoretical
Author Biography

Alan Zollman, Indiana University Southeast

Alan Zollman, PhD, grew up on a small farm and began his education in a two-room schoolhouse outside Lanesville, Indiana. From there he graduated from Floyd Central in 1969 and went on to become a Peace Corps volunteer, a middle and high school mathematics teacher, and later a professor.

 As a professor of mathematics education at Bowling Green State University, University of Kentucky, Northern Illinois University, and for the past 5 years at Indiana University Southeast, he has trained hundreds of teachers and professors across the country.

Alan has received numerous international, national, state, and local teaching, research, and service awards for his work in STEM Education, including mathematics education awards from the Kentucky Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He also has earned undergraduate teaching awards from Northern Illinois University and, in 2018, from the Greater Louisville Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Dr. Zollman has over 70 national and international publications, as well as 100+ international and national STEM Education research presentations. According to the Google Scholar website, his work has been cited well over 500 times.

In November of 2019, he was honored by School Science and Mathematics Association with the George M. Mallinson Distinguish Service Award, its highest award.