Document Type

Conference Paper

Journal/Book Title/Conference

Literacy Research Association


Dallas, TX

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Last Page



STEM fields in the US continue to be dominated by people whose cultural backgrounds are White, English-speaking, and middle class (National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council, 2009). Many reasons have been offered to explain this phenomenon: Students’ backgrounds may include worldviews, beliefs, and communicative practices that do not cohere with those practiced in STEM classrooms (Aikenhead & Jegede, 1999; Lee, 1999); instructional materials may present STEM fields as a-cultural, decontextualized practices with no evident connection to students’ lives and communities, such as the routine completion of numerical exercises (O’Halloran, 2005); students’ identities—shaped in part by their desired life trajectories, their personal histories, and the social groups by which they want to be accepted—may contrast with identities as STEM experts (Aschbacher, Li, & Roth, 2010); scientific and mathematical discourse, difficult for many adolescents to comprehend and use, may be especially challenging for those who are learning English (Fang, 2005); and societal inequities and prejudices may actively work to drive people of color and women out of STEM fields (Johnson, Brown, Carlone, & Cuevas, 2011).

To address some of these challenges, the National Research Council (2011) has argued that STEM instruction “needs to connect with students’ own interests and experiences” (p. 2-4). While a growing body of research has begun to address how teachers might draw from adolescents’ diverse cultural resources, linguistic resources, and community concerns in science (Barton, Tan, & Rivet, 2008; Moje, Collazo, Carrillo, & Marx, 2001) and mathematics (Civil, 2002; Martin, 2006), very little research has been conducted on how the same task might be accomplished with adolescent English learners in the field of engineering. This study was therefore based on a theoretical model that embeds engineering design within social, cultural, and linguistic activity, seeking to understand how adolescent English learners draw from various linguistic, representational, and social resources as they work toward solving community-based engineering design challenges. Ultimately, we hope that obtaining information in these domains will enable engineering education to be more responsive to the cultural and linguistic needs of diverse learners.



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