The American Educational Research Association (AERA) awarded its 2021 Exemplary Contributions to Practice-Engaged Research Award to Okhee Lee, professor of childhood education at Steinhardt, for her ongoing work in promoting science and language learning with a focus on English and multilingual learners.
Okhee has been engaged in this work since the 1990s, when she received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the intersection of science with language and culture – a revolutionary idea at the time.
“When I started my research in this area, a common response was ‘What does culture and language have anything to do with science?’” said Okhee. “A wise colleague told me to stick with my work and that in no time people would come around and see the connections.”
And so they did. In 2011, when the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were being developed, the NGSS wanted Okhee to be involved with writing them. “They wanted me to make sure that equity was being baked the into the science standards,” said Okhee, who was leader of the NGSS Diversity and Equity team. “We didn’t want students from diverse backgrounds left behind in science and STEM education.”
In 2016, when New York State (NYS) adopted the P–12 Science Learning Standards (NYS P–12 SLS), Okhee was there to ensure that the standards encompassed what constitutes science, and that all students would learn science equitably. The NYS science standards mirrored the NGSS being implemented across the nation.
From 2015 through 2021, Okhee worked hands-on in the Elizabeth Public Schools in New Jersey with students and teachers to see the standards’ viability and areas needing improvement.
Okhee applies contemporary approaches to a highly acclaimed, yearlong fifth-grade science curriculum called Science And Integrated Language (SAIL), supported by NSF funding. The materials she and her team developed promote both science learning and language learning for all students, especially English and multilingual learners, as well as three-dimensional learning that leads toward mastery of the NGSS. Recently, she incorporated computational thinking and modeling into SAIL curriculum.
“It’s my mission to develop English language proficiency standards that will end disparities in STEM subjects for students who are learning English as an additional language in public schools,” said Okhee.
In spring 2021, Okhee and her research team published a series of webinars and topic briefs for teacher development in support of equitable access to the NYS science standards for English and multilanguage learners. These resources were developed in collaboration with the New York State Education Department Office of Bilingual Education and World Languages (OBEWL) and the Office of Curriculum and Instruction.
Okhee’s latest research focuses on justice-centered STEM education with minoritized student groups using the case of the COVID-19 pandemic. Okhee is working with the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) to develop resources for guiding students in how to make sense of the phenomenon of the pandemic, as well as design justice-centered solutions using data science and computational models.
“When you look at pressing societal challenges, they disproportionately affect minoritized groups because of injustices in the system,” said Okhee. “That’s what motivates me to change the system through evidence-based policymaking. I would be honored to serve on a presidential task force for societal challenges, working to make sure that K–12 children and their parents and teachers are represented at a national level.”