Teaching the Science of Writing

eis-01Figure 1. How scientists see writing a paragraph.

I teach a mandatory Scientific Writing course for Chemistry and Physics PhD graduate students to help them write their thesis or dissertation, and hopefully publications.   The funny thing is that I don’t have a PhD, and when I first started teaching the course, I didn’t even have a Masters!

Surprisingly, in the 7 years I’ve taught the course, my lack of a PhD has never been an issue. The problem has been getting students to believe that they can work on their writing while in grad school. I’m not saying that they don’t recognize or value good writing, but with their courses, TA work, lab demonstrating, supervising undergrads in the lab, group meetings, seminar presentations, let alone their research, adding one more task seems overwhelming, even if they know that it’s something that they need to work on.

horses-01Although we can lead horses to water, how do we make them drink? Or in my case, although academic regulations lead them to my writing class, how can I make them think (that it’s worthwhile)?

What do I do? I try as much as possible, to talk their talk. Every example is scientific. Use non-science examples and the class tunes out. Show the same example with chemicals or lab terms and I get buy in. These students need to see the direct relationship between the examples and their writing. It’s a simple thing, but surprisingly effective.

I also try to show that writing is like any lab skill. There are specific steps and rules to follow, but at the same time they can improve with practice and reflection!

Finally, I tell them that I’m their litmus test. I know about as much as a new Masters student who might pick up their thesis for background reading. I might not understand their research, but if I can follow their thinking and believe their argument based on the evidence- their writing is clear! I might not know if the science is correct, but at least their ideas are clear.

How do you inspire your science students to “drink”?

eis photoElizabeth Ilnicki-Stone, MSc (Chem), BSc, BEd, OCT
Academic-Zone Resource Developer
Instructor, A-Z Learning Services
Brock University, Student Development Centre

*Figure 1. Formula for a good paragraph. Elizabeth Ilnicki-Stone, A-Z Learning Services, 2015.

10 responses to “Teaching the Science of Writing

  1. I found this course very rewarding and practical. I appreciate your helpful examples and assignments to improve effectively my English writing ability, which is an essential part in academic research. Thank you very much!!!

    • Elizabeth Ilnicki-Stone

      Thanks Tho! I totally agree that being able to communicate your lab results is a key part of research! Unfortunately, writing is not always taught to science undergraduates, let alone grad students. I’m glad that you are finding the course helpful 🙂

  2. I just came across this post today and was so intrigued! I always try to connect grammar use to mathematical equations as much as possible. It’s so interesting to see how many students finally ‘get it’ when I use math logic. This is an area I wish I had more time to explore and expand upon.

    • Elizabeth Ilnicki-Stone

      Thanks Tamsin. I’m curious as to what courses you teach. I’m quite interested in the idea of teaching grammar through equations. Do you have any links to references on this or are these ideas your own?

  3. Writing as a mathematical equation is a fascinating concept to me. My background is English Lit. (i.e. Writing comes from the same place as rainbows and unicorns, unless it’s genre fiction, in which case it’s grade one math.) In (seemingly) complete opposition to that, I’m a learning skills instructor and an eLearning developer, and as such, a key part of my job is to seek those formulas/equations that reveal the truth behind the magic. What’s been interesting is that pulling back the curtain simply reveals a different kind of magic. 🙂

    • Elizabeth Ilnicki-Stone

      That’s quite a contrast in skills from English Literature to being able to develop code for eLearning! I find that there is a comfort level in formulas which I can’t identify as clearly in fiction. I can see formulas in the different genres but they seem more skeletal than in scientific writing. I always thought there was an art to doing science well, but now see that there is a science to art and writing as well.

  4. Hasam Madarati

    Prior to your course, the need to explain my research to non-scientists had never occurred to me. After taking an interest in a three minute thesis competition, I saw the tough challenges in explaining one’s research to the general public. This has definitely been a great starting ground for me and had opened up my eyes that are taking me a step closer to clear writing!

    • Elizabeth Ilnicki-Stone

      The three minute thesis is definitely an interesting task for any researcher, and can be quite challenging. I know that it is easy to forget what is common knowledge to others and what isn’t. The contest is a great way to make all research accessible to other researchers within and outside the field- in only 3 minutes!

  5. Iryna Alshakova

    Writing is essential part of scientific career. The sooner person starts to work on his/her writing, the more efficiently he/she can cooperate with scientific community. Your course is really helpful. It shows me the right direction for developing my writing skills. Thank you.

  6. Elizabeth Ilnicki-Stone

    I really like the idea of writing being a way to cooperate with the scientific community Iryna. Sometimes, while doing my own research, I forgot how my work was only possible because the work of others was communicated in the literature! Thanks for your post.

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