by Rajan Kumar, Materials Science and Engineering
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2016
In Spring 2015, I served as the GSI for Properties of Materials (E45), an introductory materials science and engineering course usually taken by freshmen and sophomore students. My primary responsibility for the course was to lead the lab sections and grade the lab reports. In previous years, the E45 GSI sent the students a lab guide that outlined how to write and organize the lab reports. When I distributed the lab guide at the beginning of the semester, I noticed that it was very rigid in its requirements. The Results and Discussion sections of reports needed to be separated, but neither was adequately defined. Introductions and Conclusions were limited to a few sentences, but without direction on what to address. I realized that the guide did not outline the scientific method at all, nor did it provide information on the finer points of communicating scientific reasoning in writing. The scores on the first lab report indicated that most of the students had little to no experience in STEM writing and needed extra coaching on how to write for a scientific audience. Thus, I decided to change the way I taught the lab sections for the rest of the semester.
Typically, GSIs for E45 would begin a section with a thirty-minute review of the lab, going over the relevant materials concepts and explaining how to use the lab equipment to run the experiments. Instead of leading the review, I decided to break the students up into groups of three to go over the lab procedure and talk about the important concepts on their own. I let this run for about five minutes before I asked the groups to summarize the information they would need to perform the lab. Then, I set aside ten minutes to talk in depth about a particular section of the lab report. For example, I explained what a good Introduction should include by asking the students what background information they needed to perform the experiments. Another week, I reviewed the Results section by asking the students to list all of the relevant charts or graphs for their report and to outline what assumptions or variables went into assembling the data. By discussing one component of the report each week, I aimed to guide the students towards thinking critically about each section of the report. My goal was to explain the principles of scientific writing to the students and to stress that scientists must present clear and thoughtful arguments when presenting their research. To further illustrate how researchers successfully communicate their ideas, I posted two materials research articles on bCourses and asked the students to read the particular section we had discussed in lab. The following week, we briefly compared the strengths and weaknesses of the assigned section to show the students examples of both strong and poor scientific writing.
In order to assess my teaching method, I decided to outline a different report component in each lab section for a given week. For instance, one week I would discuss the Methods section in one lab group and the Conclusion for the other. This way, I could compare the scores for students who had received extra coaching on a particular section of the report and those who did not. By the end of the semester, I had covered every report section for all of my lab groups and noticed a few trends in the grades. Average scores for a report section were significantly higher for the students who had discussed that section during the lab than for those who had not. In addition, overall report averages steadily increased from week to week. I also noticed an increase in the number of students who came in asking questions about their writing as the semester progressed. All of these responses indicated that spending just ten minutes reviewing a component of scientific writing during the lab sections helped the students tremendously. Based on my experience with the E45 students, undergraduate engineering courses should spend more time teaching students how to write for a scientific audience. I think that we as engineers and researchers often overlook how difficult it is to effectively communicate our ideas with others, especially those with little to no background in our disciplines. I was thrilled to see such steady improvement in my students’ writing abilities and hope they continue to progress as future scientists and engineers.