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Nurturing students' 21st century skills through integrating English into STEM education


Maximising students' language exposure and developing their 21st century skills such as critical thinking, creativity and problem solving skills across different Key Learning Areas (KLAs) is one of the major concerns of Tak Sun Secondary School. English Language teachers collaborated with Integrated Science (IS) and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) teachers to develop a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) project on making a solar water purifier to raise students' environmental awareness. It is hoped that through engaging students in authentic and meaningful tasks, students' interest in learning English can be boosted and essential skills to cope with 21st century challenges can be nurtured.



Strategies used

  1. Fostering collaborative and systematic planning through a STEM committee
    To facilitate the collaboration among Integrated Science, Information and Communication Technology and English Language teachers, the school established a STEM committee to plan and monitor the following tasks:
    i) Establishing cross-curricular links among the three subjects to form a foundation for holistic planning and materials design of the project
    ii) Mapping out the knowledge, skills and values to cover, implementation schedule and tasks to be done by the respective subjects

  1. Infusing language elements at different stages of the STEM project
    While collaborating with the Integrated Science and Information and Communication Technology teachers, English Language teachers played a crucial role by developing students' reading, presentation, discussion and writing skills at different stages of the STEM project in order to remove language barriers to understanding or, as DeBoer et al. (2010) suggests, "communicating facts, ideas and hypotheses" (p.447). With the language input, students were able to apply literacy skills to construct scientific knowledge and advance scientific inquiry. This learning process helped develop their generic skills including creativity, critical thinking and problem solving skills and nurture positive values and attitudes such as perseverance that would facilitate their development as lifelong learners.

  1. Adopting the Engineering Design Process (EDP) to facilitate planning and implementation of the project
    The EDP is a series of steps engineers follow to come up with solutions to problems. It is one of the strategies adopted by teachers when implementing STEM projects in classroom learning and teaching. The process involves identifying a problem, planning for solutions, creating and testing models, and reflecting on and redesigning the process. Using the EDP, students may actively engage in asking questions, creating and testing the models and reflecting on their trials to make improvements. Through this collective inquiry learning process, students' curiosity about science is translated into critical thinking and a deeper level of understanding, thus enhancing their communication, collaboration, problem solving skills and creativity.

What happened

To raise students' awareness of environmental protection, the importance of clean water to human lives in particular, a STEM project was devised for students to apply and integrate the knowledge and concepts learnt, and solve some real-world problems such as water pollution through designing a water purifier. Curriculum mapping among the themes on condensation and evaporation of Integrated Science, 3D printing and drawing of Information and Communication Technology and creative inventions of English Language was conducted to help increase students' exposure to related themes and language skills.

Stages 1 and 2: Define the problem and plan solutions

Teachers of Integrated Science, Information and Communication Technology and English Language adopted the first two stages of the EDP model to help students define subject-specific problems and plan for solutions, in which process they were able to grasp concepts related to water purification, gain generic skills as well as enhance their language awareness.

Problems and coping strategies
Key learning elements
Integrated Science and Information and Communication Technology
Students lacked skills to identify the knowledge needed and potential problems when designing the purifier and using 3D printing.

Coping strategies
  1. To develop their problem solving and critical thinking skills, students were asked to make comparison between two kinds of water purifiers based on parameters such as cost, user-friendliness and other possible factors (e.g. effectiveness)

  2. Teachers designed a STEM project booklet and guided students to write down the knowledge needed for making the purifier, anticipate problems and propose materials required, as well as the steps of making the product.

problem solving skills, critical thinking skills
Information and Communication Technology
Students lacked a broader understanding about 3D printing technology.

Coping strategies
  1. Students were guided to review the limitations of 3D printing in the school setting and suggest possible solutions.
  2. To broaden students' understanding about the wider context of 3D printing, Information and Communication Technology teachers led students to explore how related technology helped solve industrial and real-life problems.
problem solving skills, critical thinking skills
English Language
Students were not creative enough throughout the process of problem solving and proposing solutions.

Coping strategies
  1. Students read informative texts to learn about creative gadgets invented to solve daily-life problems.
  2. To help consolidate their learning from the reading output, students were required to complete a framework of product review by outlining the features and benefits of the gadgets so as to conceptualise how creative solutions are formulated. This framework would help students work out the features and design of their STEM products at a later stage.

creativity, problem solving skills, critical thinking skills

Stage 3: Create a model

With the problem identified and possible solutions proposed, students worked together in groups to create a prototype of the water purifier. While they had to take steps in designing the product in the Integrated Science lessons, they needed to produce the prototype with 3D printers in the Information and Communication Technology lessons.

Related activities/tasks
Key learning elements
Integrated Science
  1. Students needed to consider the materials required to produce the water purifier. During the process, they could think creatively the pros and cons of using different materials.
  2. Once the materials were decided, they needed to state clearly the steps of making the product to ensure its quality.
problem solving skills, critical thinking skills, creativity, collaboration, communication
Information and Communication Technology
  1. Upon confirmation of the materials and production procedures, students proceeded to produce the prototype of the water purifier with 3D printers, making use of their knowledge and skills learnt in the Information and Communication Technology subject
  2. They were also required to list the benefits and strengths of their products in order to enhance its market competitiveness, i.e. to explain to potential customers how their design outperformed those of their counterparts. Therefore, through this activity, students' entrepreneurial spirit was nurtured as they were not only encouraged to look at things from different perspectives, but they also developed a growth mindset to continuously improve their products.

critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, collaboration, communication

Stages 4 and 5: Test the model and redesign for improvement

Upon production of the prototype, students conducted two cycles of testing of the purifiers to identify areas for improvement in their designs. They also reflected on their learning experiences and presented their products in class.

Related activities/tasks
Key learning elements
Integrated Science
  1. The effectiveness of each water purifier was measured by the amount of clean water collected in a span of five days.
  2. After collecting the data, students identified the problems encountered and worked out the improvements needed. For example, some students observed that the dirty water could not reach the collection pipe and bottle for purification, affecting the amount of water purified. As a result, they had to modify their design by adjusting the length of the pipe or improving their techniques in crafting the path of water delivery. Through this process, students' perseverance as well as problem solving skills were nurtured.

perseverance, problem solving skills, critical thinking skills, collaboration, communication
English Language
  1. To help students engage in group discussions, reflect on their learning and prepare for a presentation of their products, relevant language items (e.g. language to present the design and features of their products, discussion skills as well as presentation skills) were introduced.
  2. Students completed the framework for product review (cf. Stage 1) to outline the product features, problems encountered, proposed solutions, areas to improve and their reflections on the learning process.
  3. Each group presented their own water purifier to classmates and received peer feedback.
communication, collaboration, self-reflection


Student level
  1. Students' language skills developed through engaging in an authentic STEM project
    The STEM project provided ample opportunities for students to use English in an authentic context. During the process, students used English actively to read texts, write plans, discuss problems, design the steps through trial and testing, present their ideas and the final product systematically as well as evaluate their learning.

    The post-project questionnaire findings showed that over 80% of the students thought that they could use English to hold discussions in groups and over 97% of the students reported that they could use English to write the steps of making the water purifier. Over 85% of the students reflected that they could use English actively for discussion and presenting ideas. The data revealed that students have broadened their use of English to serve different academic purposes authentically through engaging in the STEM project.

    Students discussed the materials used and steps required for making the product.

  2. 21st century skills and positive values and attitudes cultivated
    Students were actively engaged in a series of problem solving tasks while making the STEM product. During the process, students were able to do systematic planning; apply literacy skills to construct knowledge; identify problems; find possible and creative solutions through trial and error and evaluate their own learning.

    Student work showing the design and features of the water purifier

    Over 90% of the students indicated in the post-project questionnaire that they learnt how to collaborate better with their classmates and think more critically when making the product. Over 80% of the students indicated that their creativity was nurtured while making the water purifier. In terms of the development of positive values and attitudes, over 91% of the students agreed that they learnt to be persistent and not to give up easily whereas about 94% of the students reflected that they learnt how to respect other people when working collaboratively with classmates. These encouraging findings indicated that students were equipped with the lifelong learning skills needed and have developed positive values and attitudes for coping with upcoming challenges and excelling in their future lives.

  3. Students' learning motivation developed through cultivating a sense of ownership of learning

    Teachers observed that students were highly engaged in the project as they were given autonomy to generate and organise ideas, explore different possibilities and use their imagination to create the product to solve problems. A stress-free environment provided opportunities for students to share ideas and give each other constructive feedback without anxiety and pressure. This not only helped deepen students' understanding of the relevant topics, but also developed their passion for exploration of new knowledge in the course of learning. Students have gained more confidence and courage to go beyond their comfort zone, apply the knowledge and skills learnt through trial and error, and accept the diversity among themselves. This helped prepare them as lifelong learners for their future studies and career.

    Students participated actively in the group work to discuss with peers how to design the product in a cost-effective and creative manner.

Teacher level
  1. Infusing language elements into STEM education
    To help students make connection between their learning in different subjects for the STEM activities, curriculum mapping was conducted to enhance cross-curricular collaboration. At the pre-project stage, some multimodal texts on creative gadgets were incorporated into the modular design to arouse students' interest in the topic and stimulate their creativity. At the while-project stage, to support students to communicate and collaborate in the STEM project, some key discussion skills were taught to help students talk about the aim, design and function of the STEM product, problems encountered and possible solutions. At the post-project stage, students introduced their final products to their classmates collaboratively and applied relevant language skills for an effective presentation. The English Language teachers used a framework for product review to guide students to present systematically. Through such systematic planning and mapping, students could apply their literacy skills in a real-life situation with the knowledge and concepts acquired in different KLAs.

  2. Cross-subject collaboration enhanced
    The STEM project provided a platform for inter-departmental collaboration among teachers of Integrated Science, Information and Communication Technology and English Language. The English Language teachers learnt how to develop students' literacy skills through integrating English Language elements into the STEM project, whereas the content subject teachers have become more aware of utilising English to support students in the construction of knowledge and concepts and applying them in real-life situations.

  3. Teachers assumed new roles from being an instructor to a facilitator
    In the past, both content subject and English Language teachers played the role of instructors and content providers in learning and teaching. Through this STEM project, they have experienced a conceptual change from "delivering learning" to "enabling learning to happen". Teachers became facilitators and mentors, guiding students to construct and apply the knowledge and skills through a series of problem solving tasks during the EDP. As facilitators, teachers created a stress-free and authentic learning environment to encourage students' active participation, promote mutual understanding and learning through trial and error and cultivate shared responsibility. Through engaging students in the experiential learning process, teachers were able to equip them with a solid foundation of generic skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and creativity.

Facilitating factors
  1. Clear school development goal and implementation plan
    The school has a strong dedication to implementing Language across the Curriculum and Reading across the Curriculum in the past years to develop students' ability to learn and use English confidently in different KLAs. To further stretch students' ability and equip them with 21st century skills, the principal and vice-principal showed strong support to the project by giving autonomy to the panel heads of different subjects to adapt the school curriculum. In addition, they created space for the implementation of the project through rescheduling the timetable of Information and Communication Technology and Integrated Science. This allowed teachers of different KLAs to try out different innovative strategies to increase students' language exposure both inside and outside the classroom.

  2. Cultivation of a learning culture among the teacher team
    Teachers of different subjects in the project were willing to go beyond their comfort zone to try out innovative ideas and explore a wide repertoire of strategies in the EDP model to broaden students' knowledge base and experiences beyond classroom learning. In addition, they developed an intra-school learning community to share the difficulties encountered, exchange ideas and experiences and explore effective ways to maximise students' opportunities to use English to learn the subject knowledge and skills.

  3. Strategic and systematic planning
    Knowing the fact that it was the first time the school has integrated English into STEM education, the officer and teachers made early planning in the first term by researching on the topic, mapping the curricula of different KLAs and exploring innovative and practical strategies such as adopting the EDP model. This certainly helped smoothen the implementation of the project.


The concerted effort made by language teachers and content subject teachers of different KLAs created a good opportunity to broaden students' knowledge, skills and strategies and provide meaningful learning experiences for them to apply their learning in an integrative manner, thus preparing them for future challenges of work and study.


Curriculum Development Council. (2017). English Language Education Key Learning Area Curriculum Guide (Primary 1 – Secondary 6). Hong Kong: Author.

DeBoer, G., Carman, E. & Lazzaro, C. (2010). The Role of Language Arts in a Successful STEM Education Program. Retrieved from:

Gifted Education Section, Curriculum Development Council. (2017). Enhancing Thinking Skills in Science Context. Hong Kong: Author.

Jolly, A. (2016). STEM by Design: Strategies and Activities for Grades 4-8. New York: Routledge/Middle Web.

Tak Sun Secondary School
Shirley LEUNG (Language Support Officer)

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