Dr Gabriel Cavalli
BSc, MSc, PhD, SFHEA
In the educational literature, the concept of "epistemological access" (from "epistemological", relative to knowledge) is used in reference to access to (higher) education, in order to distinguish between "formal access" to Higher Education (e.g. access to institutional entry, or being formally admitted as a student at university) and "meaningful" access and participation in the "goods" provided by Higher Education (e.g. access to becoming a full and effective participant of academic and professional practice as a result of education).
Reflecting on barriers to educational success, I find relevant to consider ways of improving meaningful academic inclusion to Science and Engineering Higher Education (STEM HE). Not the least, as inclusion lies at the heart of QMUL’s Strategy 2030 (https://www.qmul.ac.uk/strategy-2030/).
There are two aspects to consider. On the one hand, barriers to student success and meaningful engagement, and on the other hand, barriers to teaching development and excellence. My contribution to both these aspects focuses on language and communication.
Language development and impact in STEM Education:
Learning a discipline or subject means learning a disciplinary language and ways of thinking supported by it. No one is a native speaker of Science and Engineering language, or any other discipline, even if it is expressed in English, or Spanish, or Mandarin Chinese, as a medium of instruction, in which we may or may not be fluent. Therefore, a powerful way of dismantling barriers to epistemological access is to focus on decoding disciplinary language and easing student transition from every-day (vernacular) language into disciplinary language. This is particularly relevant to students with weaker literacy skills, and students whose first language is not English. For example, a 2016 OECD report found that 10% of students in English universities lacked basic literacy skills necessary to succeed in their studies (https://www.oecd.org/unitedkingdom/building-skills-for-all-review-of-england.pdf). Clearly, the percentage of students who will struggle with learning and using disciplinary language competently is higher. It is our responsibility to find ways to support these students. Meaningful inclusion in the discipline, which we term academic inclusion, means to strive to find ways to reduce this skill deficit and its impact on attainment and future success. Unfortunately, such a focus on language is not apparent to STEM experts; awareness for language and language development is not part of our STEM skill. However, it is critical for an agenda of inclusion that we develop this awareness, in order to provide meaningful educational access to students.
In addition to researching further understanding of these issues, promoting an awareness of STEM teaching staff of the relevance of disciplinary language development and developing good practice that can be deployed in the field, we are also building a platform to support students navigate disciplinary language in STEM (https://see-u.org.uk). We are working in an interdisciplinary team, together with other institutions (https://see-u7.wixsite.com/see-uorguk/team). You can read more about this project here: https://see-u7.wixsite.com/see-uorguk/about .
Education Development for “STEMmies”:
Improving meaningful student access to education means also to strive for teaching excellence, through staff development and support. There are specific challenges for this in STEM HE. In particular, the fact that the language, literature and practices of Education are rather alien to STEM experts. Such as STEM disciplines have their own disciplinary languages, so does Education. Most educational developers, on the other hand, come from Social Sciences. Consequently, the dialogue between these two “sides” is not always as fluent as desired, and, therefore, this limits its potential to impact positively STEM student meaningful inclusion in HE. In essence, a fundamental component of widening student academic inclusion in STEM HE is to ease STEM teaching staff epistemological access, or academic inclusion, into Education.
I am currently working with QM Academy (https://www.qmul.ac.uk/queenmaryacademy/) to understand the disciplinary barriers that STEM staff may encounter in developing their own teaching, in particular at early stages. Our work at this stage involves bridging and translating across the STEM-Education gap, interrogating resources and processes in Educational Development, to remove barriers to STEM staff. This understanding enables us to improve current support and development programmes for STEM staff.