Writing, Digital Literacies, and STEM Education in NH

Written by Leanna Lostoski-Ho

When asked about the successful approaches to collaborative interdisciplinary research, Bethany Silva (research assistant professor of education) explains, “It’s a long game. It’s not a short game.” Silva is one of the co-principal investigators of a recently awarded $3.5 million, five-year grant from the US Department of Education to fund the SLATE (STEM-Language Arts Teaching/learning Ecosystems) program. SLATE aims to address inequities in STEM education in middle and high school students in the Manchester school district by collaborating with teachers to develop teacher professional development, cross-disciplinary curriculum, and peer tutoring programs. Before it was awarded the Department of Education grant, SLATE began as a FY22 CoRE Interdisciplinary Working Group (IWG) led by Silva and Christina Ortmeier-Hooper (associate professor of English)—with Julie Bryce (Leitzel Center and lead PI on the US Department of Education grant), Laura Nickerson (Leitzel Center), Lara Gengarelly (Leitzel Center and Extension), and Jennifer Bourgeault (Leitzel Center and The GLOBE Program) on the team.

But Silva and Ortmeier-Hooper’s partnership began well before this most recent round of CoRE funding, as they have been collaborating on CoRE projects along with Alecia Magnifico (associate professor of English) since 2019. Their working relationship began with the Center for Writing Research, Engagement, and Teaching (C-WRET) IWG in FY20, which was led by Ortmeier-Hooper and Lisa MacFarlane (professor of English) with Silva and Magnifico on the team. Forming after years of conversation between the team members, the C-WRET IWG sought to continue UNH’s legacy as a national leader in writing research by developing a strategic plan for a multidisciplinary research center to support cross-disciplinary research on K-16 reading and writing. Through forming equitable partnerships with local NH teachers, the IWG laid the foundation for community-centered contributions to both local NH and national conversations about literacy and writing.

They continued collaborating during the COVID-19 pandemic with the CoRE COVID-19 Pilot Research Partnership (PRP) Project called TILDE: Transformational Inquiry in Literacy and Digital Environments During COVID-19, in which Silva and Magnifico served as the leads with Ortmeier-Hooper this time on the team. Silva and Magnifico recognized the enormity of the challenge that NH teachers faced in quickly transitioning to online learning in the early months of the pandemic, and they sought to capture how teachers in the state define digital literacy and implement it in their virtual classrooms. Inspired by conversations about the incredible work being done by NH teachers in the face of pandemic learning challenges, Silva and Magnifico realized that partnering directly with teachers to improve digital literacy in the state and to be co-authors on academic publications surrounding these digital literacies allowed new curricular ideas to “[get] started from the ground up,” according to Magnifico, in ways that are more effective than top-down partnerships between researchers and school districts. “It’s very important to give teachers a chance to write and publish about what’s going on in their classrooms,” Magnifico added. “Their voices are central to our field. Their professional judgments and innovations have been unbelievably helpful across our whole team, and to me in my work with future teachers.”

The SLATE IWG, with its funding by the Department of Education, has built upon these established relationships with local NH teachers by continuing to center the needs of teachers in their work to promote cross-disciplinary STEM education in NH. “The very first step,” according to Ortmeier-Hooper, “is talking to teachers and listening to their thoughts about what’s happening.” By inviting teachers as collaborators throughout the work of the IWG, the researchers have been able to determine what literacy and curricular practices truly work in NH classrooms. “Teachers have a real knowledge,” Ortmeier-Hooper added. “We have such high regard for their knowledge. We do a lot of listening and letting them shape what goes forward.” Silva agreed, stressing that as researchers, “we need to make sure it’s what [teachers] need.”

All three researchers credit their CoRE funding to their continued success in their interdisciplinary collaborations on projects aimed at promoting K-16 writing and literacy education. The researchers knew that people across campus were working on similar projects related to writing and literacy, but there was never an opportunity to come together. CoRE funding, in their view, created a “venue” for people from different departments and offices (including Cooperative Extension and the Leitzel Center), K-12 schools, and from the community (like the NH Literacy Institutes) to come together. Ortmeier-Hooper specifically noted that the CoRE grants were instrumental in “keep[ing] the momentum going” to continue their research and obtain additional funding. She found the CoRE workshops to be helpful in helping her CoRE groups to understand the process of applying for internal and external grants as an interdisciplinary group, and Magnifico also credited the Research and Engagement Academy as a key to the successes of the CoRE groups.

UNH students also played a role in the success of these CoRE groups. The researchers looked for opportunities to fund English graduate students and collaborate with them on publications in their projects. Undergraduate English teaching majors and work-study tutors were also involved, helping with background research work and publishing blog posts, and several of the undergraduates have continued working with the researchers as master’s students. Ortmeier-Hooper explained that once they found students who had interests that aligned with their research, it was just a matter of finding opportunities to involve them in their work.

When asked for advice on how to sustain years of interdisciplinary collaboration across multiple projects, these colleagues-turned-friends emphasized having an open mind, not shying away from starting conversations, and celebrating the successes of everyone in the group. “Be open to going to different departmental brown bags. Be open to showing up to COLA [College of Liberal Arts] gatherings,” Magnifico offered. If you’re open to listening, she explained, “You may find others are doing really interesting interdisciplinary work.” In terms of initiating interdisciplinary relationships, asking people who have similar research interests to your own to meet you for a cup of coffee is a good place to start, as the three researchers began collaborating themselves over a cup of coffee. While Ortmeier-Hooper admits that “The first conversation may not be what you expect,” she explains that there’s often common ground to be found if you ask the right questions, and collaboration “can come together in interesting ways later.” Above all, these researchers truly value every member of their team and feel that acknowledging the work of everyone and lifting one another up is key to their success in working across disciplines. “Academia can be a place where the individual gets the celebration,” says Silva. “And this type of [interdisciplinary] work is about the group doing well as opposed to just one person.”