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Experimenting with Science Writing

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    Romi Burks (right) discusses an assignment with students in her "Writing About Science" class. From left to right are Patrick Hooper, Victoria DeLeon, Sarah Batres and Tracy Day.

New course helps students learn how to write about science  

Ever since she earned undergraduate degrees in both English and biology, Southwestern University professor Romi Burks has always tried to blend her passions for writing and science.

This summer, she is combining the two by offering a new May Term course called “Writing about Science.”

Burks said she hopes the course, which is listed as an Advanced Writing class through the English Department, will help both science majors and non-science majors become better writers and thinkers.

“As a scientist I spend 50 percent of my time writing, whether it be email or responding to people who have an interest in my research,” said Burks, an associate professor of biology whose research focuses on invasive apple snails.

Burks noted that being comfortable writing also helps when it comes to writing grant proposals.

“If you don’t like to write, you don’t like to grant write,” she said. “And many grants mandate that scientists better communicate their science to the public.”

Burks started the class by having her students read selected pieces from Best American Science Writing 2011 and Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011. The articles included a mix of physics, neuroscience, psychology philosophy, computer science, biology and chemistry.

“I want the students to appreciate the quality science writing found in these pieces and learn to mimic the techniques,” she said.

Other required reading for the class includes the classic book On Writing Well by William Zinsser, as well as two more recent books on science communication: Unscientific America: How Scientific Literacy Threatens Our Future and Ideas Into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing. Students also have to follow four different science blogs.

Students in the course have a variety of writing assignments to complete. They have to convert a scientific paper into a news release and write a “translational” piece similar to what appears in Science magazine, in which the editors pick a study that is reported on in the magazine and write an article about why people should care about this study.

They also have to write a story about a research project in Central Texas and an op-ed piece on a science-related topic that is of personal interest to them. Students are asked to review what their classmates write so they also get some experience with the peer review process.

Students taking the course said they think it will benefit them both now and later in life. “My friends are all non-science majors so sometimes it is hard to talk to them about things I’ve learned in my classes,” said Patrick Hooper, a senior biology major who hopes to become a dentist. “This is helping me learn how to communicate with people who are not well versed in science.”

 

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