i3 Project Combines English with Science to Meet the Needs of ELL Students in Both Subjects

Investing in Innovation (i3) Development grant projects allow school districts and their educational partners to take a good idea and make it better. In 2008, school leaders in California’s Sonoma Valley School District launched an initiative to bring not just science instruction to the elementary grades, where it had been neglected, but to also combine hands-on science with English in a novel multidisciplinary approach that they knew had significant potential to help the district’s growing population of English language learners (ELLs).

In 2010, the district’s partner in this venture, San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum, took the lessons learned from their combined efforts at an elementary school in Sonoma with the highest percentage of ELLs, applied for and received a five-year, $3 million i3 Development grant to expand the initiative to all five of Sonoma Valley’s elementary schools. With matching funds contributed by two local philanthropies that began their support in 2008, the new collaborative project became Integrating English Language Development and Science: A Professional Development Approach.

From the beginning, the project’s leaders were battling misconceptions about the level of language proficiency children needed to understand science, according to Lynn Rankin, director of the Exploratorium’s Institute for Inquiry. “Science provides a perfect opportunity for language development,” Rankin explained in a March 26th Education Week article, “because students want to make sense of their experiences and communicate their ideas.”

The integration of language instruction with science was also on the leading edge of principles emphasized in the Next Generation Science Standards, released in early April. It is “essential to the inquiry-based science processes of experimentation, discussion, and argumentation,” according to Michael Lach, a former special assistant on STEM to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and now director of STEM Policy and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Chicago.

As the project nears completion of its third school year, lessons have been created and implemented in kindergarten through the 5th grade, covering biological subjects such as snails (kindergarten) and body systems (5th grade) and physical or earth science topics such as liquids (1st grade), magnets (2nd grade), and stream tables (4th grade).

The program’s impact on both the students and teaches is being monitored using a rigorous, independent evaluation. According to the Education Week article, the percentage of 5th-graders at the elementary school where the effort began in 2008 who scored “proficient” on the state science test had increased from 37 percent to 49 percent by 2011. Students’ performance on the California English-language-arts proficiency tests also have steadily improved.