ACS AMA: Hi Reddit! I am Sally Mitchell, a science/chemistry teacher and recently an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow posted at the Department of Energy’s Office of Science in Washington, DC. Ask me anything about the importance of good English education with STEM teaching.



Hello Reddit! My name is Sally Mitchell, and I am a James Bryant Conant Award recipient in Teaching Chemistry and a nationally recognized leader in STEM education. I am certified to teach chemistry, biology, physics, general science, mathematics, college level forensics and general chemistry, [and] have a passion for food chemistry. I am a resident of Syracuse, New York when I am not traveling or participating in fellowships. I have Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in chemistry and chemical education from Syracuse University. I recently spent a year in Washington, D.C. at the Department of Energy’s Office of Science for an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship where I was able to learn more about the Next Generation of Science Standards and its implementation across the country.

Today, I want to open a discussion on interdisciplinary collaboration and the importance of English education in STEM. We all know that learning English is about communication, but, quite literally, everything we do in STEM depends upon students’ ability to read and interpret symbols of some kind, and the discipline of English is where those skills are typically taught. Could science and English teachers team up to create a more dynamic, interdisciplinary, and meaningful education for students? Of course. What will it take? Cooperation between teachers (not at all difficult), guidance from master teachers in every discipline (another easy fix), support from administration and flexibility in scheduling (much more difficult but possible). I know that my teaching in science and mathematics is better because I learned how to use metaphors to help students make connections, and the concept journal my students use is a strategy that came from an English teacher friend, Nancy DaFoe, who has written on this subject. Her newest book, The Misdirection of Education Policy: Raising Question about School Reform, deals with the critical importance of collaboration among teachers in every discipline. Students and teachers are ready for this more dynamic approach to learning, but we need policy makers and administrators to get on board. Ask me anything about how to combine English and STEM teaching to best help students’ learning.

**Thank you for your wonderful questions and continue adding to the discussions. It has been a pleasure moderating this topic on National Teacher Appreciation Day! - Sally Mitchell

Hi Sally,

I'm curious what advice you have for STEM grad students that also serve as teaching assistants. During my first week, I'd assumed that the students -- just as I did -- cared about the structure and (let's just say it) legibility of their written work. I was wrong. The issue, however, is that the students were resistant to and vocally complained about being taught how to structure their arguments and how to write clearly and concisely. (Can still hear their favourite complaint BUT WE'RE NOT IN ENGLISH CLASS!!.) Systematic problems aside, what should STEM teaching assistants do to reinforce how important it is to have a solid grasp on the English language, especially when first- and second-year students all seem so hostile towards it?


My advice for a teaching assistant is to keep on caring about the structure and legibility of your students' work. As a high school teacher, I would correct spelling and grammatical mistakes on chemistry lab reports and I would hear the same complaint "But we're not in English class" and I would respond "you are in school and communication is important." Why do we always have to separate into subject areas. I am a teacher and an educator. My role is to guide and coach my students in their learning and understanding of the material. Collaboration across the disciplines is important in all levels of education and when we realize this, students win.

How important is English and good writing, specifically, in communicating about science? In the book "Writing Science in Plain English" by Anne Greene, the author makes the point that science must be clearly written in order to be understood and applied by other scientists, which is the end goal. However, too much science writing is bogged down in passive voice, overuse of elaborate terminology, and overly complex language. She argues we need more concrete subjects, strong verbs, consistent terms, and better organized paragraphs. What do you think?


The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University offers classes that teach scientists to communicate with the public. One key lesson: Don't use acronyms when speaking. If you want to say ACS, instead, say American Chemical Society when speaking to people outside of the chemistry world. I think that scientists and engineers should write with creativity in mind. Use metaphors to deepen the interest of the reader. One of my best students in AP Chemistry was also a great writer in English class. When he went to college, he majored in chemistry, but his love of writing allowed him to publish and publish and publish. He is now pursuing his PhD in chemistry at New York University. I can't wait to read his dissertation. It will be a great read.

A lot of educated commenters talking about higher levels of implementation of this idea, but I would like to see it in lower level classes in high school and middle school such as General and for those with learning disabilities. I think there's a scientific illiteracy epidemic in the United States and this idea could significantly help that. What do you think?


I think that organizations such as the American Chemical Society (ACS) are doing their part in helping teachers to incorporate science literacy into their curriculum. Chemmatters is a quarterly publication geared towards the high school chemistry student. The readings are interesting and current and full of chemistry. My students love reading them and now the ACS has published "The Best of ChemMatters: Connecting Science and Literacy". This publication has 12 excellent lesson plans connecting STEM content to scientific literacy while improving student's reading comprehension. The newly formed American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT) has an online journal for teachers with lesson plans implementing scientific literacy into science lessons for K-12 teachers of chemistry. I am excited to have excellent student materials prepared for teachers to use.

Thank you for taking our questions today Sally! I think it's accurate to say the United States is currently dealing with a mass issue of social scientific illiteracy. Many people seem to view science as a collection of facts discovered by professionals rather than a creative, exploratory process that is open to everyone. What do you think educators can do to foster a personal connection between students and the scientific process? Specifically, I'm thinking of the kind of connection that could lead students to turn to the scientific method independently when dealing with inquiries that arise in their every day lives.


With the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in many states, the key is teaching students to ask questions and use science and engineering principles along the way. I am teaching 7th grade Common Core Mathematics this year and I am loving the time to discover so many connections between 7th grade mathematics and high school chemistry. Content literacy is also a part of my middle school day bringing English, social studies, art, family and consumer science, technology all together with science and math. My students are learning in an environment connecting all the dots across the curriculum. I think there needs to be more open minds in the heads of the educators at all levels and work with teachers across the disciplines. This will require teachers to have a deep knowledge of their own subject material and the confidence to step outside of their circles and bring in the other disciplines.

Hello! I was a chemistry student of yours in 2014, you were an awesome teacher and the Ottos Cupcake ice cream you gave us was amazing!

My question is: What would you do if you were the Secretary of Education, or what major change in education nationwide do you think is most urgent if any?


Thank you for the compliment and yes, the Otto's Cupcake ice cream was amazing! If I could make one major change in education, it would be to teach in an interdisciplinary classroom where science blends with English and history and math is applied. The arts are so important to a student's development bringing out creativity while blending in science.

Hello, Social Studies teacher here. What examples do you have of cross-curricular collaboration? What support is needed from admin to make things like this happen?


I love Social Studies. To understand science, one must understand history. No sense in repeating mistakes. An example this year was in my 7th grade math class and I was on a unit for ratios and proportions. I had students read Executive Order No. 10834.55 where the regulations provide that the length of the flag should be 1.9 times the width. Students had to construct a flag with the 13 stripes and use the guidelines to create a proportional flag and color it in. When they the flag, they noticed they had to do over 12 ratios and proportions to solve their problems. It was a fun and constructive time.

Hi Sally.

I was just accepted into a Masters of Education program for the Fall and although I am excited to teach physics in a classroom, I still occasionally kick myself for maybe not attempting something else like a PHD or another industry job.

What advice/words of encouragement do you have for new STEM teachers? In what ways can I contribute to the advancement of our schooling system while also teaching in a high school?


We need good physics teachers! I hope you stay in teaching, you will make a difference, especially in physics. My advice is to work with your middle school teachers to develop a curriculum to expose students early to the beauty of physics. Teach them electricity and sound in middle school. Get the equipment into the middle school teacher's hands. Work with your English and math departments to develop lessons around what they are also learning in social studies.

Hi Sally, Thanks for the AMA. What science courses would you recommend an English Major take to have a solid STEM core so they can teach writing for STEM?


What interests you? I have to admit, as I get older, I am loving Earth Science more and making connections to physics and weather, chemistry in rocks, learning about climate change and understanding what 350 ppm means. Forensics is really fun and it would expose you to a laboratory course that has chemistry, physics, biology, and earth science all in one course.

Sally, as a former student of yours, this question begs asking;

Where do you stand on metric vs. imperial units? Which do you think is the most important moving forward, since the English language takes advantage of both units?


I take an engineering approach to the teaching and understanding of the metric system. The modern metric system (International System of Units) is so easy, yet we make it difficult to learn in the USA. Instead of teaching conversions (there are no conversions, just changing of prefixes) in chemistry class, why not teach students when to change prefixes and to express quantities using appropriate prefixes when necessary. Give them opportunities to change the prefix to suit the need in hand instead of having students "convert prefixes" for a test. When teaching prefixes, bring in the ENGLISH! What is the purpose of a prefix and what are the meanings? What are the root words and units? English can help.

Hi Sally, Thanks so much for doing this! Full disclosure: this is interesting enough to inspire my first ever reddit comment! (I've been a lurker for some time now.)

My background is in chemical engineering and my wife's in language/education. Once a teacher in US public school, she's now going back for a degree in environmental science.

We both very much understand the importance of everything you mentioned, and we would like to start doing outreach and education knowing that there are inefficiencies in our school systems. What is the best way to engage with the community? How can we help develop the necessary communication skills of students outside of their formal education? Asking kids to write and present outside school function seems like a tall order.

Any advice you could give would be great!!


I would start with your local section of the American Chemical Society(ACS) and contact their education committee. We do a lot of outreach here in the Central New York Section of ACS sponsoring the Illustrated Poem Contest for K-12 students in the fall for National Chemistry Week(NCW) and again in the spring for Chemists Celebrate Earth Day (CCED.) We also have hands on science for students during NCW and water quality testing for students during CCED.

Do you have experience in Project Based Learning, this seems like a good platform to combine disciplines?

Do you have any examples of projects that could be done to collaborate communication and science?



One of the teams I work with in my middle school does many Project Based Learning activities and yes, this is a great way to combine disciplines. This takes teachers being confident and strong in their own content knowledge and willing to expand their horizons and learn about the other disciplines. It takes teamwork from the teachers to pull off great projects and when they do, the students really enjoy school. We have so many examples of projects, but my advice would be to create projects around your students' needs and resources. We just created bird houses using mathematics to construct different shapes, physics to create strong structures, chemistry to select materials, biology to research nutrition of birds, social studies to study different areas of the USA and bird populations, and English/communication skills to produce an advertisement to "sell" the bird house. The kids really enjoyed the project and learned to fail at first, re-assess, re-design and try again.

Hi Sally,

As a high school English teacher, I've been pushed recently to emphasize real-world writing in my classroom. I want to have my students both reading and writing in the STEM fields, but I'm trying to move away from read-summarize-reflect assignments, which many students fail to see as valuable. Are there more authentic forms of science writing that my students can try?


Of the top of my head, why not authentic research? There are so many great competitions across the country, the problem is dissemination of the information. Computer science and coding have competitions for girls called Code Girl where students have to create an app to solve a problem in the world. This competition requires research and writing in order to compete. This is just one competition I learned about while serving as a Fellow in Washington, DC last year. Another fun topic is technical writing. In Science Olympiad, one of the competitions is called "Write it/Do it" where one student is in a room with a structure put together with materials such as Legos. They have to write it and explain to their partner how to put it all together along with the geometry and orientation of the pieces. The partner is in another room with a bag of all of the materials taken apart. The instructions are brought to the partner and they have to put the structure together. This competition is so much fun and it teaches students how to explain things for complete understanding.

Thanks for doing this AMA, I'm a soon-to-be science teacher, and I'm looking for ways to improve science and technical literacy among students. The angle I wanted to approach it was with science journalling where we'd look at scientific journal articles or actual research papers and discuss a particular component, like methodology, sampling or just what it was about. Do you have any advice that may help me with this endeavor?


My advice is to give students choices in their readings. What interests you might not interest your students. I love Chemmatters as a publication and students usually find some article that interests them in every issue. You can find them free online.

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