Students excel in dual-language biology course

By Peta Owens-Liston

ESL instructors at Salt Lake Community College team up with class instructors to support English-language learners

The scientific method, cell structure, cellular respiration, photosynthesis, mitosis and meiosis, DNA structure. These are some of the complex topics taught in Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) professor Emmanuel Santa-Martinez’s biology classes; topics that are even tougher to grasp if you are an English learner.

“I saw that Latinx students in the intro to biology courses were struggling to succeed, so I wondered what the result would be if we removed the language barrier,” said Santa-Martinez, who launched SLCC’s first dual-language biology class in Fall Semester 2021.

More than 87% of the Latinx students passed with an A-, while in the previous all-English biology class, the Latinx students earned C grades. However, it wasn’t just the improved grades that Santa-Martinez noted. “In the classroom, there was a tremendous change in how students engage — students were more comfortable and conversational and asked more questions.”

He explained the dual-language approach is about providing accessibility and equality, so all students have the resources they need to succeed. In Santa-Martinez’s biology courses, he provides resources in both Spanish and English; this includes all assignments, research materials, quizzes and exams.

Santa-Martinez emphasized that his Latinx students want to learn the concepts in English, but if they are tired or confused, they can refer to Spanish. “These students do not want an all-Spanish speaking class because they know they need to know English well for their future careers.” He also emphasized that his biology classes are not designed to be Spanish classes for those who want to learn Spanish. “The goal of this course is to primarily support native Spanish speakers to learn biology successfully.”

Student Annery Hansen said a dual-language class helped her understand certain ideas and terms that she would otherwise have a hard time understanding. “It is especially hard to understand scientific terms in a different language, so this program of having dual language classes has been such a benefit,” stated Hansen. “I believe [this class] has given me a lot of success in my schoolwork and eventually into my future career.”

Hansen’s sentiments were echoed in feedback provided by other students, such as Vanessa Alvarez, who added: “I finished this course with a lot of knowledge acquired. Having a bilingual class was one of the best experiences I have had in college.”

As an emerging Hispanic-serving institution, in which almost a quarter of SLCC’s student body identifies as Latinx, offering a dual language biology class is another step in supporting this population.

This article originally appeared in the latest issue of Salt Lake Community College Magazine.  

Peta Owens-Liston

is assistant director of public relations at Salt Lake Community College in Utah.