Accessing the DALN for STEM Students at an Hispanic Serving Institution




This chapter focuses on efforts to draw upon the DALN to increase scientific literacy among students at an Hispanic Serving Institution. The study centers on a learning module developed to enhance the retention and success of first-generation college freshmen majoring in STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) at an HSI. Incorporating model narratives from the DALN as well as student samples from courses that completed the learning module, the chapter emphasizes civic scientific literacy as a crucial skill for students in becoming engaged citizens and critical thinkers, and advocates for greater attention to scientific literacy in first-year composition courses. The study reveals the potential of the DALN and composition studies to examine the role of narrative in strengthening individual and collective action on issues of scientific urgency.



Introduction: The Scientific Literacy Narrative in First-Year Composition

The sheer breadth and volume of material captured in the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) makes it an invaluable resource for exploring multiple literacies. My own foray into the DALN began while designing a first-year composition course centered on scientific literacy. This course was part of an interdisciplinary Learning Community aimed at increasing the retention and success of underserved minority students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. As a compositionist who has long been passionate about the value of scientific literacy for all students and citizens, I took this opportunity to focus on the significance of writing in helping students navigate the various discourses within and around scientific issues. The DALN was instrumental in shaping the signature assignment that emerged from these efforts: a scientific literacy narrative.

As the editors of the DALN (n.d.) explain to potential contributors, “[a] literacy narrative is simply a collection of items that describe how you learned to read, write, and compose.” DALN collaborators Kathryn B. Comer and Michael Harker (2015) observe that “the rise of the DALN reflects the popularity of the literacy narrative genre in contemporary composition studies,” especially as emphasis in composition pedagogy has shifted away from “published, polished exemplar narratives” that reify polarizing notions of professional versus student writing and towards using the written work of students as texts (p. 66). Comer and Harker’s study surveys “promising practices” for integrating the DALN into composition pedagogy—a purpose that the authors also acknowledge the archive was not initially intended to serve (2015, p. 67-68).

Krista Bryson (2012) also notes that the DALN was not created with the expectation of functioning as a tool for research and further argues that the framing of the archive has “privileged a traditional definition of literacy that may unintentionally limit the intended audience’s conceptions of what literacy is and thus what a literacy narrative can be about” (p. 255, 258). Even Bryson’s more critical reading of the DALN nevertheless focuses on its utility in the teaching and study of traditional literacy narratives. While such an application may now seem intuitive even among potential detractors, the notion of a scientific literacy narrative is far from ubiquitous. Nevertheless, one of the most liberating aspects of working with the DALN is its adaptability in this regard, inviting a “Choose Your Own Adventure” approach for users of all stripes—even teacher-scholars.

What is Scientific Literacy?

As is the case with all forms of literacy, “scientific literacy” is subject to several definitions. These definitions exist outside of composition studies and are not typically at odds with one another, but rather are shaped by distinct lenses and contexts. As a non-scientist whose expertise lies in the teaching and study of writing and critical thinking, I have sought out expansive definitions of scientific literacy as an inexorable component of being an engaged citizen of the country as well as the planet. Science education expert Wendy R. Johnson (2016) articulates an understanding of scientific literacy that speaks to this perspective:

Scientific Literacy includes the ability to participate in scientific discourse to some degree, even if only as a critical consumer of scientific information. While not all students will become scientists, all citizens of our society need the skills to continue to learn about science outside of school and the ability to apply their understanding to make personal decisions and engage in public discussion of socioscientific issues. (p. 371)

What Johnson outlines mirrors research scientist Jon D. Miller’s (2013) description of civic scientific literacy, which he views as  “critical to the preservation of our democratic principles.” Miller, who has dedicated the bulk of his career to advocating for this cause, uses the term “civic scientific literacy” to denote the “level and kinds of information that a citizen needs to know in order to follow current and emerging public policy issues.” At bare minimum, American citizens should attain a level of literacy that is “needed to read the science section of the Tuesday New York Times or to watch an episode of Nova on public television.” Miller underscores “that this is the minimal level necessary to allow citizens to engage with science-related public policy issues and that we ought to seek to elevate this level of understanding in the decades ahead.”

The definitions offered by Johnson (2016) and Miller (2013) suggest the potential for close consideration of scientific literacy within composition studies. Composition is uniquely situated to cultivate a reflective, interdisciplinary mindset in students as they prepare to navigate the ever shifting political, economic, and media landscapes that shape the directions of public discourse on scientific issues ranging from vaccinations to the regulation of carbon emissions.

The urgency of scientific literacy has long been touted in the popular press by notable figures such as Neil deGrasse Tyson (White, 2014) and Alan Alda (Morrison, 2016). More recently, we have entered an age in which the President of the United States has described climate change as a myth generated by China in order to preserve its economic edge (Jacobson, 2016). Perhaps less jarring but still notable, a 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 39% of Americans believe that Genetically Modified foods are more unhealthy than non-GM foods, with a majority of those surveyed believing that scientists are actively debating the health effects of GM foods, when in fact a 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine affirmed the consensus among scientific experts that GM foods are indeed safe from a consumer perspective (Funk & Kennedy, 2016).

Now more than ever, students must hone the critical skills to distinguish fact from fiction, to develop reasoned perspectives based on evidence rather than gut instinct or popular opinion, and to ultimately take a seat at the table when decisions are being made that will determine the fate of our planet and its populace.

Institutional Context

While cultivating scientific literacy among all students is crucial, it is absolutely imperative in increasing the diversity of students who become scientists themselves. This is a national issue but also an institutional one at my campus, California State University Channel Islands (CI). Founded in 2002, CI is the newest addition to the country’s largest state university system, the CSU. Many of our students are second-generation Americans whose parents work the rich agricultural fields of the Oxnard Plain that surround our campus. We serve a large population of low-income, non-traditional, first-generation college students and are a designated Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). Although 40% of incoming first-year CI students are deemed not proficient in English according to California State University’s English Placement Test (CSU, 2016a), we have designed an innovative, inclusive composition program that enables 92% of students to successfully complete their college writing requirement in their first year at CI without remediation (Anderson, 2015).

FIgure 1. Satellite Image of CSUCI-Oxnard Plain.
Figure 1. Google Earth satellite image of CSUCI-Oxnard Plain

As an HSI, our campus has received several grants that endeavor “to build a university going culture in the region and strengthen university infrastructure and programs that further promote CSU Channel Islands’ commitment to fostering diversity, facilitating access and promoting educational attainment” (CSUCI, 2016b). Our composition courses have been a natural fit for such efforts, helping underserved students develop confidence as writers, readers, and members of the University community. Literacy narratives play a significant role in these composition courses, encouraging students to reflect on the experiences that have shaped them as readers, writers, and thinkers and helping them recognize that their stories are far from over. Thus, when I was asked to develop a composition course as part of an HSI grant focused on underrepresented students in STEM disciplines, it made sense to create a learning module centered more specifically on scientific literacy.

The need to support underserved minority students in STEM is clear. At our campus, 25% of incoming first-year students who initially declare a STEM major leave STEM within their first three years. This percentage of “STEM leavers” rises to 29% for first-year students who are both Hispanic and low income (e.g. eligible for Pell Grants). We see lower course pass rates for STEM students who are Latino (69.8%) and Latina (69.1%) compared to other STEM students (80.5%) (Sanchez et al., 2016). Through a project launched by the CSU Chancellor’s Office STEM Collaboratives Initiative, and funded by the Helmsley Charitable Trust, CI created a project called Retaining, Inspiring, Supporting, and Engaging Students in STEM (CSUCI, 2016c). The program incorporated the High Impact Practices of Learning Communities and First Year Experience Programs to place students in cohorts that shared a chemistry course, a critical thinking course, and a first-year composition course (CSUCI, 2014).

Why Work with the DALN?

As an open educational resource that is continuously evolving and expanding, the DALN aligns both pedagogically and practically with the broader mission of our composition program in general and this learning community specifically. The DALN is an accessible, dynamic, and certainly affordable alternative to the overpriced, static textbooks that are increasingly impeding student access to higher education. Such material economic constraints cannot be overlooked in an era when 60% of college students do not buy textbooks due to the cost (Lalonde, 2015). Understanding that the students we serve already face enough hurdles, financial and otherwise, our composition program at CI has long steered away from pricey rhetorics, readers, and handbooks, instead gravitating towards open source texts as well as writing samples from previous students.

While we could perhaps justify requiring expensive textbooks if they would make a measurable difference in learning, we have found that students become more empowered and capable as writers when they are able to read and discuss examples from other students who have struggled with the same issues they face. The DALN has expanded the walls of the classroom much further, exposing students to an even broader diversity of authentic voices that open up possibilities for their own writing in a way that oft-anthologized, professional essays cannot.

When I began to explore the DALN as a resource for developing a learning module on scientific literacy, I was delighted to discover the wealth of material in virtually every mode of delivery that would provide inspiration for my students. In designing the writing task for this module, I was mindful of Deborah Brandt’s (1998) powerful theory of literacy sponsorship and how it could be applied within the context of scientific literacy. Our campus’s HSI initiatives have certainly been a response to the “persistent stratification of opportunity and escalating standards for literacy achievement” that Brandt identified in “Sponsors of Literacy” (1998, p. 167). The students we serve at CI typically “have less consistent, less politically secured access to literacy sponsors-especially to the ones that can grease their way to academic and economic success” (p. 170). Brandt uses the term sponsor to capture the “range of human relationships and ideological pressures that turn up at the scenes of literacy learning” (p. 168), frequently in the form of  “older relatives, teachers, priests, supervisors, military officers, editors, influential authors (p. 167). The concept of literacy sponsorship teases out the connection “between literacy learning and systems of opportunity and access” (p. 169) as well as the “unequal conditions of literacy sponsorship that lie behind differential outcomes in academic performance” (Brandt, 1998, p. 170) that are as operational in scientific literacy as they are in the reading and writing practices at the center of Brandt’s study. I developed my assignment to give first-year students an opportunity to identify and examine the conditions that have influenced their access to scientific literacy thus far and shaped their identities as potential members of the STEM community or at least scientifically literate citizens.

The writing assignment I designed asked students to reflect on key moments in their own personal histories that have shaped their scientific literacy, including moments in and out of school and any relevant texts that may have played a role. As with more typical literacy narratives, students were advised to focus on moments that they could flesh out in vivid detail and reflect on within the larger arc of their own journeys. Students were asked to draw upon various sources that explored the topic of scientific literacy, including studies from the Pew Research Center, in composing their essays. Although this learning module and the others I created for the course were inspired by my participation in the RISE Students in STEM Learning Community, it made sense both logistically and philosophically to implement the same assignment sequence in my other composition courses as well. This provided two iterations of the scientific literacy narrative and ample material for the purposes of this study.

First Iteration: Fall 2015

The most notable lesson that came from teaching this learning module the first time was that most students would not instinctively make use of the DALN for models or possible research sources without more explicit directions or requirements to do so. This was in spite of the fact that the prompt specifically made mention of the DALN as a resource. As students were instructed in the writing task, “In this essay, you will reflect upon the evolution of your own scientific literacy. Your paper will draw upon the reading tasks from this module, your results from the Pew Science and Technology Quiz, and texts from your own personal literacy story that reflect significant stages in your journey. You will also draw upon the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) in composing your paper.” (See Learning Module 1 in Appendix.)

I devoted class time to showing students how to search the DALN and provided examples of relevant narratives I had located in my own searches. In practice, however, students focused primarily on incorporating the studies from the Pew Research Center on the public’s knowledge and attitudes regarding scientific issues, as well as other sources I had provided to show how the results of the these studies were discussed in news media. Students who were in the RISE program also brought in materials they had learned in their critical thinking course that was linked with our composition class. In the midst of writing their own narratives and incorporating research and analysis into their essays (a programmatic requirement for all composition classes that fulfill the first-year writing requirement), most students overlooked the DALN as a resource.

How the DALN Proved Useful

The DALN was most useful in my fall courses to help legitimize the value of personal narratives as material worthy of a college writing course. First-year students typically arrive at our campus with a firmly entrenched notion that the word “I” has no place in academic writing. This belief has been so ingrained that they have a difficult time taking my word for it, even when they are asked to write first-person narratives. The examples from the DALN I provided in class helped students understand that personal, first-person student writing was not only acceptable but publishable. Similarly, the examples from the DALN helped students understand the small, seemingly commonplace moments our assignment was designed to elicit. In the words of Comer and Harker (2015), the collection “aspires to make visible the everyday literacy practices of ordinary people” (p. 65), making it particularly useful for first-year, first-generation college students who are still establishing their own identities within the academy. The DALN helps students understand that they have stories that are worth sharing.

Moreover, the variety of “little” narratives available in the archives provide alternatives or at least more nuanced variations of what Kara Poe Alexander (2011) terms the “literacy-equals-success motif” (p. 628). Alexander challenges compositionists to adjust their literacy narrative assignments so that students do not feel obligated to replicate “simplistic master narratives like the success narrative” in their essays; she also suggests the students be encouraged to  concentrate on “one formative literacy experience” rather than a catalogue of moments from birth through college in order to help students generate a “‘true’ little narrative” (p. 628). Even a “success” narrative a student might produce in this framework would be “contextualized and individualized” rather than abstract and over-generalized (2011, p. 626). Alexander focuses on literacy narratives centered on reading and writing, but her findings have implications for the scientific literacy narratives my students were asked to write.

The DALN is rich with “contextualized and individualized” little or local scientific narratives. Constraints of time and space during which the narrative is captured, particularly if it is an audio or video narrative, necessarily limit the scope of many pieces in the collection. These factors have also helped proliferate narratives that frequently steer away from the overly optimistic, “happily every after” conclusions that students often feel compelled to tack onto their own literacy narrative essays. In her study, Alexander (2011) found that students were most likely to rely on a “one-dimensional” spin towards success in the conclusions of their essays. The majority of her subjects “relied on success narratives to ‘sum up’ their experiences, even when their concluding point did not logically follow from earlier stories in their literacy narrative” (p. 623).

The literacy narrative genre may seem to almost demand the invocation of the “literacy myth” that “attaches literacy to success,” as Krista Bryson argues (2012, p. 282). Bryson implicates the DALN in this myth, particularly with regard to some of the suggested prompts for eliciting contributors’ stories, while acknowledging that the “archive provides contributors both subversive and traditional frameworks for understanding literacy and literacy narratives” (p. 257). The open, accessible, digital nature of the archive allows for such a broad array of contributions that it “provides a potential space for subversion of the grand narrative of the literacy myth through little narratives from people across a wide spectrum of literacy and cultural backgrounds, experiences, and ideologies” (Bryson, 2012, p. 257).

This array becomes even more apparent when focusing in on scientific literacy narratives, which are not commonplace enough to be as culturally loaded as narratives focused on reading and writing. Scientific literacy is also less likely to be perceived as a journey towards a single, triumphant summit. The nature of science and the scientific method lend themselves to a more fluid, evolving identify at both the individual and cultural level. The diversity of scientific fields and various contexts in which scientific literacy can grow and/or be exercised allow for more of a “snapshot” approach to these narratives that is less like likely to be imbued with expectations for a tidy, satisfying conclusion. Moreover, failure is widely perceived as an integral aspect of the scientific process, as exemplified in social media by the #fieldworkfail phenomenon in which scientists share their often humorous mistakes and mishaps in the field via Twitter (Meyer, 2015). Examining scientific literacy narratives within the DALN reveals possibilities for alternative narratives that do not succumb to the pat archetypes or clichés that concern Poe (2011) and Bryson (2012).

DALN Model: Cindy Phan’s “Lab Write-ups”

Because most of my Fall 2015 students were not inclined to search the DALN of their own accord, the primary exposure they had to the archives were from the samples I provided in class, such as the audio narrative entitled “Lab Write-ups” submitted by Cindy Phan, dated April 19, 2009. As is often the case with pieces in the DALN, the title of the submission only represents one aspect of a story that covers several facets and a broad swath of time. While brief, Phan’s narrative provides an authentic, first-person close-up on the evolution of scientific literacy my own essay prompt was intended to elicit from students.

Audio 1. Cindy Phan, “Lab Write-ups” [Transcript]

Phan’s audio narrative begins with an early memory of her exposure to science in grade school making volcanoes by mixing vinegar and baking soda. “I was so amused by that simple reaction,” she remarks. “My interest and love for the subject has grown with me, and now in college, I plan to make it part of my career.” Phan then turns to the subject of writing, indicating that she did not realize when she was a child and first developing her love for science that it would involve “so much writing.” She notes how the lab reports she wrote in high school were simple enough that she could compose them just before class, but in college she finds herself “working on lab reports all the time,” and expectations are much higher. “Each lab report is so extensive,” notes Phan, “I feel as though I am writing a novel.”

Phan’s further reflections indicate that she has mastered the rhetorical situation of the lab report and how it is situated with the practices and conventions of the scientific community. She notes quite perceptively that the “actual experiment takes a backseat” to the report itself. She clearly understands that failure is an expected outcome of the scientific process, and that whether an experiment turns out as hypothesized is of comparatively minimal consequence “as long as it’s all documented and thoroughly explained in the lab report.” Phan goes on to observe that the lab report is the first thing that comes to mind whenever she thinks about science, indicating the important role that writing (especially data analysis, “the most important section that makes up the bulk of the report”) plays in her discipline.

Although this is an audio submission, Phan clearly prepared her words in advance. This leads to a narrative that is fairly detailed and coherent for its length (just under two minutes). Though Phan’s prepared remarks lack the spontaneity of narratives that are delivered more extemporaneously, the level of reflection and self-awareness she brings to the piece provided a useful model for my students, especially as the products they were expected to produce would also be written.

Following her prepared narrative, Phan answers questions from her unnamed interviewer that seem intended to elicit further reflection from the subject. The interviewer seems particularly focused on having Phan identify the sponsors of her literacy, asking, “Did your parents kinda reward you for doing this sort of thing?” Phan responds “Not really,” and laughs, to which the interviewer replies, “Really? You just did it?” Phan affirms that this was the case. The interviewer seems incredulous that Phan’s internal motivation, work ethic, and passion for science were not sparked by parental intervention. The interviewer then asks if Phan’s parents ever rewarded her for reading, again seeking evidence of literacy sponsorship. “Um. My sisters would,” Phan replies. “My mom didn’t really pay attention because she was really busy with work. But if I read, my sisters would let me play video games or they would bake me cookies or something.”

The questions posed by Phan’s interviewer suggest that he was attempting to evoke more reflection about her literacy in terms of reading and writing, especially with regard to literacy sponsorship. While Phan’s narrative indicates that she has a clear sense of herself as a member of the scientific community and the expectations placed upon her as a student in that community, she seems less concerned with her own development as a reader and writer in general. For her, reading and writing seem to be tools that she harnesses in the service of her discipline to demonstrate her abilities to master content and analyze data. Her narrative gives little indication of the figures in her life that helped spark her passion, though one might infer the role of the teachers going as far back as elementary school and those classroom experiments with vinegar and baking soda. Nonetheless, Phan’s narrative provides an instructive example for students in how to construct a coherent narrative based on selected moments from one’s own life.

Student Samples: Nick VanKeersbilck and Ryan Sandefur

Only two of my 51 first-year composition students incorporated pieces from the DALN into their own essays. One was from the RISE cohort and the other was from a regular composition course that was not linked to a Learning Community. In both cases, these were diligent students who were consistently meticulous about incorporating every required resource into their papers. One RISE student, Nick VanKeersbilck (2015), cited the 2014 video narrative of composition instructor Dwedor Ford, “Integrating Technology into the Classroom.

Video 1. Dwedor Ford, “Integrating Technology into the Classroom” [Transcript | Caption file]

The backdrop of the video indicates that Ford’s narrative was captured at the station the DALN team sets up at the annual Conference on Composition and Communication Convention (information that is confirmed in the metadata associated with the listing). In the narrative, Ford describes herself as “one of those early adopters” who learned to use computers in the early 1980s when her husband returned to school to earn advanced degrees in  computer science and then slowly began incorporating email and word processing into her composition classes. At a time when students were still able to submit handwritten work, Ford felt it was important for students to learn these skills but also noted that it made it much easier to decipher and thus grade student writing (a material concern for someone teaching sections of 30 students each). Ford’s expanding computer literacy ultimately inspired her to pursue a Ph.D., publishing a dissertation on the integration of technology in the classroom. Ford concludes her narrative by noting that her husband also went on to earn a Ph.D., and their shared interest in computers gave the couple common ground for conversation and connection even though they were in seemingly disparate fields.

Figure 2. Screenshot of Dwedor Ford.
Figure 2. Screenshot of Dwedor Ford

In his brief analysis of Ford’s narrative, Nick looks to her story as an example of how “teachers and professors play a pivotal role in helping shape the future of science in America… The change starts with them.” Although Nick misidentifies Ford’s profession as that of an elementary school teacher, this could be attributed to the compromised audio quality of the video, since one must strain to hear Ford’s words while another speaker is talking at the same volume close by. First-year students like Nick are also not ensconced in the discourse community of composition to understand that a “composition class” typically refers to a college level course. Nick also seems to be viewing Ford’s story through his own subject position as a first-year college student, connecting to his own memories of a sixth-grade teacher who inspired Nick to become more curious about science:

My first real experience with science was in the sixth grade when I had Mr. Borchard as my teacher. He taught us about life sciences, earth sciences and biology. He always had a fun way to link his lesson to the real world and explain why it is relevant today. Young students are always asking why they are learning something or how it is going to relate to them in their daily lives, teachers need to always make a conscious effort to try to give real life examples and start to fill in the whole picture for the students. This makes it fun and interesting for the students and makes them want to learn the material. Kids need to be interested in a subject to fully learn and understand the material. (VanKeersbilck, 2015)

Mr. Borchard was clearly a formative figure in inspiring Nick to pursue a degree in biology. Engaging with the DALN helped Nick reflect on such influences and how they had shaped his thinking as a student, aspiring scientist, and engaged citizen.

Earlier in his essay, Nick advocates for an open source, collaborative approach to science that unwittingly echoes the mission of the DALN:

Science, like many things, should be open source. As someone who enjoys computer programming, open source projects are a cool way to use someone else’s work and then improve on it. When many people improve on this same piece of software, it benefits the entire community as a whole. Science is very similar, one scientist performs an experiment and then records his observations, then another picks up where they last left off, and another, and another. Collaboration is a very important aspect of good science. It helps progress research and development much faster. Moving is improving, and one person can not complete the entire project by themselves, they need a team around them. (VanKeersbilck, 2015)

Nick’s essay is both thoughtful and optimistic in its characterization of the communal nature of scientific inquiry. Composed before the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” Nick’s words are a balm against the anti-intellectualism that has pervaded American culture since the 2016 election. Frankly, the perspective offered in this essay provides a ray of hope that I fear I took for granted in the fall of 2015.

Art major Ryan Sandefur, the other Fall 2015 student to incorporate the DALN into his scientific literacy narrative, embraces a similarly optimistic attitude towards scientific discovery and progress in his essay. (It is worth noting here that students were given three essays to write in the fall 2015 semester, two of which were to be further revised and edited for inclusion in the final portfolio to be assessed by our composition team. Unlike Nick, Ryan did not choose to include this essay in his final portfolio, so his scientific literacy narrative did not go through as many rounds of revision and editing). Ryan writes, “I… look forward to what new advances science will contribute to society and how people’s lives will change because of it. I am also excited to see what technology will develop as science improves and see how this technology will improve our lives. It will be interesting to see how people become inspired to contribute to science.” Ryan then refers to the 2013 DALN narrative provided by The Ohio State Professor Emeritus Bill Rich, “A Bookish Aerospace Engineer.”