Skip to main content

UW’s STARTALK Prepares Teachers and Russian Heritage Speakers for STEM and a Mission to Mars

A Museum of Flight staff member gives directions to the heritage language students during the Mission to Mars simulation.

September 12, 2016

I was one of 13 lucky teachers who got to participate in this summer’s STARTALK teacher program, July 6-22 at the University of Washington. The STARTALK teacher program is a nationwide initiative launched by the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) to increase the number of Americans speaking critical languages (e.g. Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Hindi, Persian, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, and Urdu). It aims to maximize the effectiveness of the pedagogical techniques used by instructors. It complements another summer program, this one for students who are heritage speakers of these languages, which centers around real-life use of the language in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

Juliana and PAVA

Vocal ensemble Juliana & PAVA performs during the STARTALK student program graduation ceremony on August 5, 2016. The group shared ancient Russian folk songs with the students and explained in Russian the history of the music and the Russian hurdy-gurdy instrument.Valentina Petrova

Even though I’m a teacher of English to speakers of other languages, I was fortunate enough to be accepted to the program because I’m also a heritage speaker of Turkish. This made the program’s focus on heritage speakers particularly interesting, as I could relate to many aspects of heritage speaker learning myself. I also found a lot of the information was transferable to my profession and useful to improve my own instructional practices.  Each instructor was given the opportunity to take the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) written and oral proficiency exams, which are a key step to becoming certified to teach a foreign language in the K-12 system. It felt good to have this under my belt in case I work in a field which requires proof of my Turkish proficiency in the future.

The STARTALK student program is designed to integrate the Russian language with STEM fields and to showcase the vast career opportunities students have access to with their knowledge of the Russian language.

This year the UW hosted around 20 high school students from the Seattle area, all of whom were heritage speakers of Russian with varying levels of proficiency. We got to observe the STARTALK method in action as the students took part in engaging, student-centered lesson plans focused around the theme, “Russian in the Sky and Outer Space.” Instructors in the teacher program had the opportunity to observe real instruction in the student program, and those who were Russian instructors had the opportunity to conduct lessons for the students. Although I didn’t do the latter, it was a good chance for me to brush up on my Russian listening skills as I observed the lessons.

STARTALK books 2016

The Ellison Center sponsored the 2016 STARTALK summer program, “Russian in the Sky and in Outer Space” by purchasing various books in Russian that students in the program selected from a local Russian language bookstore, “Continent Books & Music.”Valentina Petrova

The most memorable was our trip to the Museum of Flight, a partner of the UW STARTALK program. Here we watched as the students undertook the Mission to Mars roleplay, a simulation in which they had to communicate with a Mars lander in order to exchange crew and cargo.

A popular attraction for students of all ages at the Museum of Flight, the STARTALK program set it apart from the others by requiring the students to do the simulation in Russian, using materials and instructions printed in Russian rather than English. This allowed them to use vocabulary and language that they wouldn’t normally be exposed to in their daily lives. As we observed the students take part in the 90-minute mission, we could see that they were genuinely engaged and made every effort to use the language to achieve their goals. It was clear that the students came out of the program with the understanding that Russian wasn’t just a language to be spoken with parents and grandparents, but one that can open many doors in their future careers.

This has been the sixth year in which the STARTALK program has served both teachers and students in the Seattle area. For more information about the STARTALK program, visit