Teaching Science Writing Q & A with Karen Almeida

We know from research that writing in the sciences can be quite different from writing in other disciplines, particularly humanities-based disciplines, where writing is most-often taught. In order to learn more about the function and practice of writing and writing instruction in the natural sciences, we asked RIC chemistry professor Karen Almeida to share her thoughts on the role of writing in her own teaching.

ITL: In what class are you using writing assignments?

KA: I have incorporated general writing assignments into my CHEM310 Biochemistry, CHEM106 General, Organic and Biochemistry II and CHEM103 General Chemistry. Currently I have a developed a discipline-specific assignment for my upper level Biochemistry lab course (CHEM422).

ITL: What made you start assigning writing?

KA: I have been thinking about the best method to incorporate writing into science course for many years now. There are two styles of writing that the successful scientist should master: writing within the discipline, which is always addressed in science curricula and writing for the general public.

In my opinion, the most important aspect of science writing is to correctly identify your audience, in other words don't confuse styles of science writing. Science writing for the general public needs to be free of the jargon. The writer must have a solid understanding of the scientific concepts. There are many examples of excellent science writing for the general public. In fact there is an annual series of books called "The best science writing of …." Each edition is a compilation of the most interesting and informative science articles published in the past year.

Writing within the discipline is entirely different. Again, writers need to understand the concepts, however in this case, use of the appropriate jargon writers is required. Furthermore, the passive voice and complex sentence structures are often used to describe complex concepts. Writing within the discipline often adheres to a specific format.

ITL: With that class in mind, what kind of assignments are you using? Small, low-stakes? Informal? Or larger, higher-stakes?

KA: Students taking this course are planning to pursue careers in biochemistry either in industry or continuing their education to obtain their doctorate degree. These students need to learn to write for the discipline, so I set up a high-stakes assignment where they generate a publication style manuscript based on the work completed in class. To lessen the impact on student grades and reinforce the concept of collaboration, I assigned sections as either 1) individually written, 2) lab-partner collaborations or 3) whole-class collaborations.

ITL: Do you ask your students to do any research?

KA: Students are given a small sampling of research primary literature summarizing the topic we are investigating in lab. I encourage all students to look further into the literature for papers related to our specific topic. Ultimately, if students are not getting the answer they seek in the original articles they need to expand their reading.

ITL: Do you do any "in the discipline" writing assignments, as in, teaching lab reports, or scientific abstracts?

KA: This entire assignment would be considered writing in the discipline, sections to be completed include:

  • Abstract; a summation the research completed
  • Background and Significance; an introduction to the research question
  • Materials and Methods; a summation of the reagents and procedures used
  • Results; a statement of the conclusions from the raw data
  • Discussion; the interpretation of the results in the context of the current research models
  • Figures; images of the raw data annotated to give the appropriate framework for understanding
  • References

ITL: Do you do any writing instruction for basic skills, or discipline-specific issues??

KA: Each section is assessed as a first draft, revisions and final document. Points for the first draft are awarded based on completing the assignment on time, regardless of the work included. I do this because students are often confused about what they should be writing, even after having read sample sections from the literature. I evaluate the first draft and give constructive criticism for the revisions. We have been working on sections of this document throughout the course of the semester. The final document is assessed as 25% of the course grade.

ITL: Do you use Blackboard for writing, or do they turn in hardcopy papers?

KA: I have been piloting out the used of Google Documents this semester. It allows for active collaboration between partners as well as allowing me to watch the progress of the sections.

ITL: What kind of feedback/grading do you provide?

KA: So far I have been guiding students' through the development of the background and significance section. This should be the most difficult for them as the final document is a compilation of each student's writing a single paragraph. The paragraphs need to flow together yet each student is responsible for the accuracy and concise representation of his/her paragraph. Once a reasonable draft is complete, I will ask each person to write a peer review of the completed document.

ITL: How do you feel about the feedback/grading you provide?

KA: At this point in the semester I wonder if the assignment is too ambitious.

ITL: Do you believe that including writing assignments is worth the effort for a science class?

KA: Absolutely!

ITL: What do your students say about writing for your class?

KA: They do not think that they have written anything like this before (in fact it is similar to the standard lab report that they have completed for previous courses). Therefore, students have expressed some concern that 'they don't know exactly what I want'.

ITL: Do you think writing helps your students learn the science content?

KA: Students will not be able to write a clear, concise section without fully comprehending the scientific concepts. So I think it helps a great deal to bring the entire semester's technical work together into one document.

ITL: Do you think your students grow as writers in your class?

KA: I think it will be a valuable experience for them. I think their writing will be affected; tighter, cleaner and more linear and that their scientific confidence will increase. This would imply that they have grown as discipline-specific writers. Does it follow that their writing for the general audience will be improved? The answer to this question is still unknown.

Page last updated: Dec. 16, 2011