• by Joseph Vigil, M.S. • IDRA Newsletter • March 1998 • 

The “project approach” to instruction is becoming popular for providing enriching, cognitively demanding experiences for limited-English-proficient (LEP) students. The project approach involves any type of group learning activity that brings about a sustained period of self-reliant effort by learners to achieve a clearly defined goal.

The approach is most productive to invite students to express themselves in the language they use most comfortably. While extra time may be needed for translation so that all students can understand each other, the benefit is that students are learning to communicate using math and science language that can be transferred as students’ English proficiency increases. The translation process can produce greater English fluency. Homework that takes the form of hands-on projects and problem solving promotes students’ language and thinking skills and helps parents support the value of learning math and science for real-world applications.

The language needed to communicate ideas in math and science classes can be difficult for LEP students to master. Science vocabulary is key to most science instruction. By one estimate, students in the average high school biology class are exposed to more than 2,400 new terms in one year – more new words than they would be asked to learn in the typical high school French class (Vigil, 1996).

The hands-on project approach can motivate all students to communicate using math and science language in order to produce a final product. For example, teachers in Gallup, New Mexico, are receiving training from the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) on how to implement the project approach to enhance instruction and motivate students to learn math and science concepts.

“We put students first here in Gallup and will adopt strategies that will enhance student learning and achievement,” said Melinda Swain, coordinator for language acquisition and staff development for the Gallup-McKinley County Schools (CS). Teachers are not throwing away their textbooks. They are using the solar car project to demonstrate real-world applications of key concepts and to have students communicate these concepts while participating in social interactions with other students, teachers and mentors.

The solar car project approach covers valuable real-world engineering design experiences, math and science concepts, and other experiences including:

Engineering Design Experiences

  • Definition of customer and needs
  • Performance criteria and contacts
  • Research
  • Synthesis
  • Analysis
  • Design
  • Prototype construction
  • Testing
  • Evaluation
  • Presentation

Math and Science Concepts

  • Metric units
  • Force at a point
  • Circumference (radius times two times pi)
  • Torque (force times lever arm; T=FL)
  • Gear ratio
  • Velocity (V=D/t)
  • Revolutions (rotations per minute or radians per second)
  • Friction
  • Center of gravity
  • Graphing
  • Frontal area
  • Specific weight of air
  • Acceleration of gravity
  • Aerodynamic drag
  • Solar panel and motor

Other Experiences

  • Working as members of a team
  • Troubleshooting experiences
  • Sportsmanship
  • Promoting an event
  • Knowing it is okay if something does not work
  • Working with Sprint solar car software
  • Internet research

Students have such a good time with the project that they often do not see the math and science as school work, but as a tool to create a product. The project drives the math and science content, and communication increases, fostering greater English fluency for LEP students as well as for all students involved. Administrators and parents in Gallup will assist since the solar car project can culminate in a solar car competition that requires many volunteers and assistance from outside the classroom. Community and local businesses will contribute by providing support for the promotion of the event.

Technology is not just something added to this project approach. It is truly integrated into every aspect of the experience. Students will use solar car software that animates key science and math concepts to provide them with background information. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will provide on-line research for students at their web site. Photovoltaic information for teachers and students is featured in an on-line quiz also found at the NREL. An example of student work may be viewed on Chris and Grant’s Solar Page (no longer available). This student page was created for a school science project and provides background information on photovoltaic cells, home applications and solar car highlights.

On-line mentors will be utilized to assist students and teachers with the project. Engineers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory will provide expertise on the mechanics of the solar car project and the overall design process. Professional staff from IDRA and the Southwest Comprehensive Center Region IX will provide Gallup-McKinley CS teachers with on-line expertise on topics such as the following:

  • Bilingual education and English as a second language (ESL),
  • Education technology,
  • Instruction and curriculum,
  • Multicultural education,
  • Family involvement and participation,
  • Professional development, and
  • Evaluation and assessment.

Two resources that provide educators with ESL strategies are Teaching Content: ESL Strategies for Classroom Teachers and Starting Today…Steps to Success for Beginning Bilingual Educators developed by Frank Gonzales, Ph.D., a senior education associate at IDRA. These resources point out that the most important tenet of bilingual education is that knowledge is transferable. Content area instruction early in school should be done in the primary language to develop a strong cognitive base in one language, which then transfers to the second language.

The project approach can enhance students’ learning of math and science concepts. It provides a rich environment for using math and science language that can be transferred as students’ English proficiency increases.


Gonzales, F. Starting Today…Steps to Success for Beginning Bilingual Educators (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1995).

Gonzales, F. Teaching Content: ESL Strategies for Classroom Teachers (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1995).

Vigil, J. “What is Science Literacy?” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 1996).

Joe Vigil, M.S., is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]