“These kids have learned so much,” I think as I watch my seventh-graders present their STEM projects to external evaluators. Reporters, engineers, and scientists all approach me in awe of these students’ redesigned household items. Ritz crackers housed in Oreo-style trays, nail clippers enhanced with adhesive sandpaper strips, deodorant applicators with small loops for improved grip—all have been modified by student engineering teams for a specific target user. It’s impressive work for 12- and 13-year-olds.

I grin with pride as I see another student draw evaluators into his team’s presentation pitch. It was not that long ago when many of these students were shaking with anxiety while delivering similar presentations to regional judges. I tell my classes, “In industry, it doesn’t matter how impressive your idea is if you can’t communicate it intelligently to the right audience.” The evaluators today have noticed the students’ greatly increased confidence and communication compared to last fall.

I am so proud of the language arts skills my students have gained.

Some may not consider an English Language Arts (ELA) teacher relevant to STEM education. But I’ve learned over the past year that the role of ELA teachers in STEM programming is nothing short of essential. My job is to help STEM students gain the collaboration and communication skills they need to bring their science, technology, engineering, and math skills to fruition in the 21st century marketplace.

Each STEM lesson we’ve designed this year contain an integral ELA component. In the Agriculture Unit, students learned to write attention-getting sentences and use an inverted pyramid structure to organize newsletters about our 500 rainbow trout eggs. In the Fossil Fuels Unit, students used text features such as titles, subtitles, captions, and sidebars to organize articles about their drill prototypes. After our Transportation Unit, students presented vehicle modifications to the Army Corp of Engineers and learned valuable presentation lessons about tone, transitions, and anticipating an audience’s needs.

A growing body of research confirms the relevance of ELA instruction in the 21st century STEM classroom.  See Judy Willis’s recent publication, “Writing Sprouts Conceptual Brain Networks from the STEM of Math and Science.” Willis attests that “through writing, students can increase their comfort with and success in understanding complex material, especially when the subject has unfamiliar concepts and subject specific vocabulary.” Our work at the TSIN platform school Innovation Academy this year this year incorporating ELA into STEM studies certainly supports Dr. Willis’s findings.

As the auditorium clears, one of my students approaches me, his face beaming. “Mrs. Greenlee, we asked the mayor for a business card. We want to network with him about communicating our Ritz packaging to Nabisco!”  These are exactly the presentation and communication skills the marketplace is telling educators that we need to cultivate in students for a stronger STEM workforce.