Teaching Fast and Slow: The Gradual Introduction of Scientific Writing in a Fast- Paced Lab

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Clarissa Towle, Materials Science and Engineering

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019

Challenge: MSE 45L is an intense materials science laboratory course for which I was a GSI in the Fall of 2017. This was the first university-level class that most of my students had taken, as many of them were either freshmen or junior transfers from community colleges. The course’s objective is to teach introductory materials science concepts, but the students are also expected to write their lab reports on these topics in the form of scientific journal articles. The learning curve on the course material is steep enough, but it is even harder to convey this new knowledge in the highly specific style and format of a scientific journal, to which most of my students had little prior exposure.

Approach: In order to teach both science and science writing, I broke down the key components of a good journal article and taught one major aspect of the lab reports at the beginning of each lecture. Alongside recrystallization, we learned about plagiarism and proper citations. While studying binary alloys, we outlined scientific abstracts and research conclusions. With heat treatments came suggestions for writing an experimental methods section, and with tensile testing came a discussion on crafting effective figures. I supplied examples and resources for the topic-of-the-week and let my students know that I would be paying special attention to these areas of their reports.

Assessment: With each report they turned in, I steadily raised the bar for the next week. For the first lab report, for example, I did not penalize students for omitting error bars in their plots. But after we had discussed how to address experimental error in class, and many more students correctly reported their error bars and significant figures, this became part of my standard grading rubric. This encouraged them to maintain a high level of detail in their error analyses while learning to enhance the next area of focus as well. As the semester progressed, the average word count of the lab reports remained exactly the same—but the quality increased dramatically. Their abstracts were more concise, and their figures were clearer and more balanced. By the last week of the course, I had hardly any critiques left, and we aimed for perfection. I gave them more freedom to shape their lab reports as they saw fit: instead of following the course’s detailed laboratory manual exactly to the letter, students relied on their new intuition for scientific writing to communicate what they did, what it meant, and why it mattered.

On the course evaluations, many students remarked that they appreciated the clarity of this format. They also reported finding it easier to tackle the published journal articles that they encountered in their other classes or in their research positions. By emphasizing one particular component of the lab reports at a time, we were able to gradually integrate technical communication skills with the course curriculum.