Award Winning Bilingual Education Advocate
“What are the best ways to teach science to multilingual learners?” Dr. Diego Romàn has dedicated his career to this question. Román has been an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2019. With his expertise in both science and bilingual education, he studies issues at the intersections of language, culture, geography, and science. His research specifically focuses on ways of addressing environmental issues with multilingual learners while taking into account disparities driven by environmental racism.
A native of Quito, Ecuador, Román is not new to the Madison area. After completing his undergraduate studies in Honduras, he came to the United States to study entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While he enjoyed his research about the biology of communication as studied through social insects such as bees, he longed to spend more time with people than in the lab. After visiting several high school classrooms to discuss careers in science, Román decided to follow the two generations of his family before him and become an educator. He taught science at an alternative school in Chicago and then moved to Madison as a science teacher at a local private school. He earned his teaching license from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Román’s family moved to the San Francisco area where he taught science to multilingual learners in the Mission District. He later earned the Ph.D. in Educational Linguistics with a focus on Science Education from Stanford University. After a few years working as a professor in Texas, he returned to Madison as Assistant Professor of Bilingual/Bicultural Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction with affiliation in Chican@ and Latin@ Studies.
Since arriving at UW-Madison, Román has expanded his focus on language and science education to consider not only how to better communicate the content to multilingual learners, but also how multilingual learners are affected by the content and its presentation. He gives an example: “If we say, ‘Deforestation rates are increasing,’ there is no agent. There is no one doing it. How does that impact children who are acquiring English as an additional language or who live in a multilingual house?” Román is concerned with how languages choices in science are perceived across cultures and how children who do not live within the dominant culture make sense of that language.
A staunch advocate for bilingual education, Román is critical of English-only approaches to education. “It’s not that we don’t want [multilingual learners] to learn English,” he said, “we just don’t want them to have to do it at the expense of their Spanish. Communities should not have to choose.” He advocates for multilingual learners to have the appropriate resources and skilled teachers to achieve a truly bilingual education. He also admonishes that this issue is not one to only be considered when there is a significant number of multilingual learners in a school or district; each student deserves a quality education that affirms their identity and honors their histories. To this end, Román has recently completed a 2-year virtual professional development program with science teachers across Wisconsin. In this program, he guided the teachers through training on how to talk about socio-environmental issues with multilingual learners.
Román has also contextualized his work to the state of Wisconsin. He thought that he would be collaborating with schools in Madison or Milwaukee until a serendipitous conversation where he learned about communities in rural Wisconsin like Arcadia whose schools are majority Latinx or Abbotsford where the Latinx population has exploded in the last decade. With the support of the prestigious National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship, Román worked with the Algoma and Arcadia school districts to support them to teach environmental issues to multilingual children in a way that is geographically and culturally relevant. He has continued this work since 2020.
Román’s work with rural Wisconsin communities has blossomed. He is working with a group of rural libraries to improve their services for Latinx communities. He has also partnered with the Wisconsin Historical Latinx Collective (WHLC), and organization seeking to document the histories of Latinx communities around the state in partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society. Román and his graduate student are documenting histories in an Indigenous Latinx community in northern Wisconsin who came to the state as farm workers but now own the dairy farm. After spending the early part of his career working in cities, Román has developed an affinity for rural locales and the sense of community that they embody.
Although he has embedded himself in his work in rural Wisconsin, Román has not lost his commitment to his home and his desire to share his home with others. He has continued work with Indigenous schools in the Galapagos Islands. Alongside Professor Mariana Pacheco, he has designed a study abroad program in the Galapagos Islands. In June, they took the first cohort of undergraduate students on a 2 ½-week trip where they visited schools in Santa Cruz, the main island of Galapagos, Ecuador. Prior to leaving, participating students spent one week learning about the geography and educational system there. During the program, students considered three questions: What is the role of schools in protecting the Galapagos environment? How does the sociocultural and linguistic history of Galapagos and its diverse communities impact conservation efforts? How is the national science curriculum adapted to respond to diverse Galapagos children and families?
Recognizing the excellence of his work, Román was among 12 faculty honored with distinguished teaching awards in April. He received the Chancellor’s Inclusive Excellence Award, which honors faculty who uphold the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Román earned this honor based on his exemplary teaching on campus and the work that he does with school districts in rural Wisconsin including Arcadia and Algoma. He hopes that the attention that this award brings will be focused on the communities with which he works in Wisconsin and in the Galapagos. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would pursue a Ph.D. in the United States,” he said in his acceptance speech. “I am grateful.”