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Breaking the Language Barrier

Doctoral candidate Eshani Lee’s research ensures college chemistry knowledge doesn’t get lost in translation.

Research  |  May 19, 2017  |  By Marian Alper

Eshani Lee, graduate fellow in chemistry. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

One of the great promises of higher education is its potential to help students someday achieve the American dream. College is intended to be a great equalizer, offering students from even the most challenging backgrounds and circumstances a chance for upward mobility. 

But this promise doesn’t come without its obstacles. For students whose native language isn’t English, it isn’t just the subject matter of a course that can prove challenging. The very act of learning can be problematic when the language upon which learning relies is unfamiliar. And it’s not only writing and literature classes that create roadblocks. It’s math and science courses, too.

“The largest attrition rates in the sciences are among non-native-English-speaking students,” said Eshani Lee, a doctoral candidate at UNLV whose research focuses on chemistry education — more specifically, how non-native-English-speaking students learn in college chemistry courses and the specific challenges they face taking exams and quizzes. At issue, Lee said, isn’t how smart students are, but how scientific information is presented to them and how their knowledge is assessed.

“Many people think that if you can figure out a mathematical formula, you don’t need language skills,” Lee said. “But for a student to be successful in the sciences, it’s important that they understand not just numbers, but the language that the numbers are imbedded in.”

Lee knows what it’s like to be a smart student whose language skills create barriers. Born in India to non-English-speaking parents, she moved to California when she was 12. She dreamed of being a doctor, but the academic frustrations of being a non-native speaker of English nearly convinced her that she wasn’t intelligent enough.

Lee did, in fact, get into medical school. She completed two semesters at Ross University School of Medicine before realizing that her passion was scientific research and not patient care. At that point, she matriculated to UNLV, where she earned a master’s degree in biological sciences.

While working as a graduate assistant, Lee came to realize that she loved to teach, so she combined her passion for science with her love of teaching. She's graduating now with a Ph.D. in chemistry education. Lee hopes her research in this field will lead to strategies that will enable teachers and students to improve learning in chemistry and, ultimately, help non-native-English-speaking students thrive in all sciences.

“On a personal level, bright students are being discouraged from achieving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees,” Lee said. “In order for (any institution) to be a top research university, every student needs a fair chance to succeed.”

While similar studies have been done with younger students, research at the post-secondary level is rare — and for such research to focus on a hard science like chemistry, even rarer.

“Lee’s research has the potential to make a significant impact on a growing number of college students throughout the country,” said MaryKay Orgill, associate professor of chemical education and Lee’s dissertation advisor. “This is especially true at UNLV, where, for many of our students, English is a second language.”

Lee is a recipient of the prestigious President’s Fellowship, funded through gifts to the UNLV Foundation. A new mother, she is profusely grateful for the support. “The fellowship helps me afford child care so I can devote time to my research,” she said. “It is truly a blessing.”