STEM English

Hello, my name is Mark, and I am a teacher at Sagalingua.  My specialty, and what I enjoy teaching, is Business English and STEM English.  Let’s take a look at what these terms mean.

English for Business Purposes (EBP)

Business English explains how you speak and write when at work.  What this means is that you use a more formal writing or speaking style than in normal, everyday English.  For example, Business English uses more formal words and more complicated verb tenses than when you are writing an email to a friend or speaking to your neighbors.  At Sagalingua, we offer Business English classes.  Feel free to email me at saga@sagalingua.com if you want more details, and I’ll be glad to talk about it with you.  In this post, though, let’s talk about something different—STEM English.

STEM English

STEM stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”  STEM English is similar in some ways to Business English, but it is also different and more difficult.  Just like Business English, STEM uses more complex terms than ordinary English, but these words also tend to be more technical and with very special meanings.  In fact, many of these special meanings are so technical that even native English speakers may not understand what they mean!  You’ll see what I mean below.

Teaching STEM English is very rare, and few schools have classes on this subject.  This is too bad, because it makes working in these fields difficult for people who are still learning English.  So, how can we make STEM English easier for students?

One of the most important things in learning a language is to study it “in context.”  What this means is that you study the language using it in complete sentences, and then try to understand what the word means in that sentence.

A Very Simple General Example

Let’s start with a simple example of how words have special meanings depending on the context.  In our example, we have to figure out what a word means by understanding how the word is being used.  If somebody talks about a “bank,” he or she might mean:

  • A place where money is kept

or

  • A piece of land alongside a river

or

  • The turning of an airplane

Which of these three meanings is right?  It depends on how the word is used in the sentence.  If somebody says “I’m going to the bank to get some money,” he means the first case.  If he says “I sat on the bank fishing,” he means the second case.  If he says “The plane is in a sharp bank,” he means the third case.  All of these are correct, and you figure out the meaning by looking at the word “in context.”

A Very Simple STEM Example

Let’s do another “in context” example, but now let’s look at a STEM word and the different meanings it can have.  You’ll see this example is much more complex, because there are many very special meanings.

If you look up “process” in a dictionary, you will see many common meanings for the word.  For example, http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/process will show you some of the common meanings:

  • A series of actions or steps you use to achieve a result
  • A series of changes that take place naturally
  • A method of producing things

In addition to these common meanings, there are also slang meanings:

  • To deal with something
  • To think about something

Additionally, there are specialized meanings of the word that are used in STEM:

  • Photography: To develop film
  • Chemistry: A chemical means by which one solution is converted into another.
  • Physics: A method by which atomic or nuclear changes occur.
  • Computer Engineering: A thread, i.e., a program that is running on a computer.
  • Geology: Tectonic plate movement that involves shifting of the earth.
  • Technology Program Management: The means by which a new concept is researched, developed, tested, and released to manufacturing.
  • Manufacturing, Industrial, or Process Engineering: The means by which a manufacturing operation converts one item into another. Even here there are huge differences in the use and meaning of the word, as in:
    • The manual assembly flow followed by Foxconn (a Chinese manufacturing company) to build an iPad out of components
    • An automated microscopic method used in making integrated circuits

The important thing to understand from this example is that all of the meanings above are “right,” and we have to select the meaning from the context it is used in.  With STEM words, there are often very special meanings that even native speakers may not know unless they are scientists or engineers.  This is why learning special STEM English is often very difficult for students who are learning English.

A More Detailed Example

A more complicated yet very real example is the following. Suppose a college student has recorded a mechanical engineering lecture and the instructor says:

  • “Tomorrow we will be using piezoelectric accelerometers and Fourier Analysis to determine the resonance frequencies of the DUT.”

For most people, including native English speakers, this sentence sounds silly and means nothing!  In fact, it is fair to say that most people likely would not even be able to write down the sentence from the recording. For a mechanical engineer, however, the meaning and objectives make sense.  To put this in simpler English:

  • “Tomorrow, we will use special, small electronic devices that measure changes in motion. We will examine a “DUT” which means “device under test.”  We will attach these devices to something that is shaking, and we will get an electronic recording of how the object is moving.  After that, we will use a mathematical tool to convert this electrical signal into a lot of really simple sine waves.  We do this so that we can have a way of describing to other engineers how the thing behaves when it is moving and shaking.  This will allow us to determine when something is shaking out of control.”

Notice that the simple explanation is much longer than the first explanation.  Specialized words may sound difficult, but they are used in STEM all the time because they make it easy for scientists and engineers to talk with each other.  The hard thing for students who are learning English is that very few schools can understand and teach what this means.  At Sagalingua, we can help you with this.

What Else is There to STEM English?

Above, all we talked about was the vocabulary of STEM English, but there are many other ways that English students can learn about STEM.  We can teach you using tools such as “scaffolding” which means helping with outlines of technical papers or specifications.  We can also teach you ways to collaborate, or work together, with other STEM people to solve problems.  If you would like to know more, contact us at saga@sagalingua.com, and we’ll be glad to tell you how we can help you learn STEM English.

 

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