Writing in Science
Modes of Scientific Writing
Scientists write for so many different purposes and in so many different ways that it’s a bit of a shame that so much emphasis is placed on the formal research report. It is certainly a worthy goal to build toward that level of literacy. But many of the other things that scientists “write” are useful models for developing disciplinary literacy in sciences, as well as for 21st century digital literacy.
Two of the most important communications experiences that scientists in training participate in are lab meetings and journal clubs. There are ways to model both experiences in your class.
A presentation at a weekly lab meeting would typically be 10 to 20 minutes but feature lots of discussion and questions. You might talk about experiments you are planning to do, or experiments in progress or recently completed. The heart of the presentation would be to show data, usually your own. The lab meeting is a great opportunity to practice oral presentation of your work and ideas; you learn how to think about and respond to questions and suggestions that you get as you speak, in the supportive setting of your own lab. Your classroom has many of the facets of a lab—all the more so if students are working in smaller groups and teams. The students are studying the same or similar things and you are like the head of the lab, the principal investigator. The key is for students to present actual data, preferably their own, but published data can also be used. Those in the audience ask questions about what they don’t understand as well as make helpful suggestions or even raise concerns about the strategy and tactics of the research. The same basic goals apply if the lab meeting presentation is about future plans. The questions help the presenter to think more critically about his or her research and to refine his or her plans.
You could have students do 10-minute versions of a lab meeting, aiming for 5 minutes of presentation and 5 minutes of discussion. Five minutes of presentation takes significant preparation: a student or team works on close reading of the data they will present, and writing notes on the content and sequence of their presentation, including anticipating likely questions. The outcome from a typical lab meeting presentation is a list of things that you realize you need to do.
Video: Watch Thinking and Communicating Like a Biologist to see how a teacher holds a version of a lab meeting by having her students present their ideas to students who took the class previously. This is nice modeling of the actual demographics of research labs, where people of varying levels of experience work together.
Amy Sheck leads students as they read and discuss a scientific paper on biofilms, design and propose an experiment, and then set up their experiment.
Teacher: Amy Sheck
School: North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Durham, NC
Discipline: Science (Biology)
Lesson Topic: Design and conduct an experiment
Lesson Month: November
Number of Students: 12
Other: This is a two-year school that focuses on the intensive study of science, mathematics, and technology.
Reflect: Make a list of how peer feedback can complement and reinforce the modeling and feedback that you provide directly to your students.