Teaching Science Writing – Learning by Doing and Not by Listening

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Sonia Travaglini, College of Engineering (Home Department: Mechanical Engineering)

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2018

Working to support the Masters of Engineering capstone projects, my hardest challenge was teaching students to communicate the value and significance of their highly technical work. Students had to learn science writing; how to use a narrative to convey the value of their scientific endeavors to both their academic supervisors and to the wider public. Teaching them science writing proved to be a real challenge. Coming to understand that their learning had to be experiential, not instructional, helped me find a way to teach them how to apply a narrative to technical topics.

The problem: How to link scientific data to meaningful ideas
The art of science writing is explaining a project in terms of the human experience: describing a story that connects the technical information to a narrative arc, which introduces the problem, builds tension around why this problem matters to individuals, and delivers a solution. To fully understand the value of their engineering project, students had to connect to the motivations, activities, and outcomes of their projects on a personal level. They had to learn to inform, explain, and argue why their work was meaningful to someone. The problem was that instructing students to build a narrative around a complex, data-driven topic proved very unintuitive—students struggled to see how deeply scientific projects could connect to a wide audience who may not have their depth of knowledge (or passion) for a niche topic. In my first semester in the program, I tried sharing examples from popular UC Berkeley science writers, but it didn’t help the students apply the narrative structure to their own work. Despite going over the examples in class, the feedback cards I handed out to students showed that they felt lost, and that the work was not practical. I then tried to go through each part of a narrative structure at the chalkboard, but again this didn’t work, as students’ mid-course assessments came back showing they could not apply the “introduction, tension, solution” structure to their own projects.

The solution: Learning to apply a narrative to science by doing, and not by listening
I turned to the GSI Teaching & Resource Center website for ideas. When I read about John Kihlstrom’s research that direct instruction helps inexperienced learners but does not benefit experienced learners, I had an “aha” moment. My teaching mode to the masters of engineering students was all direct “talk-and-chalk” instruction, which would not resonate with students already well versed in writing reports. They needed a real, legitimate exercise that would make them take the lead, just like they would as professional science writers. I changed the format of our discussion section to include an interactive exercise that broke down the parts of a science writing structure. In the next class, we took those elements and brainstormed in groups to discover exactly what about their projects applied to these elements. It helped them distill their project information into the key parts of a science narrative, and to create an argument that the work was useful to the reader as an individual, while giving explanations of the scientific information that supports that argument. Students quickly figured out the aspects of their work that would matter to people.

The value: Assessing the impact of learning by doing
To evaluate how well the new teaching mode worked for students, for the last assignment I created a review of each team’s outcomes from the in-class exercises. I then compared the grades to the previous semester, when I had only used talk-and-chalk—students responded well to the experiential learning, and the grade average of the class increased and the variation decreased. Students also noted in the end-of- semester feedback that the practical exercises were useful, and I felt the class no longer shied away from sharing work. In future semesters I hope to expand the exercises by asking teams to share their outcomes with students in different professional degree programs, to see how well their work resonates with a wider audience. Working with masters of engineering students is always inspiring, but helping them express the value of their work was what motivated me to continue improving my teaching. I learned that the best way for students to learn science writing is by doing, not listening.