For 10 years, first as a graduate student in cell biology and now as a lecturer in the College of Natural Sciences, Ruth Franks has been helping natural sciences students learn how to write better as a means of better understanding science. She's won a Teaching Excellence Award from the college, and the SWC Award for Writing Instruction from the university. Most recently, she's been instrumental in assisting the college, as well as the new School of Undergraduate Studies, in developing "Writing Flag" courses.
I sat down with Franks recently to discuss the new courses, the value of writing in a science education and the challenge of teaching young scientists to think through writing.
What's a Writing Flag course, and what is special about it?
It's part of the new curriculum for all undergraduates. What used to be called Substantial Writing Component (SWC) courses are now being called Writing Flag courses. Everyone is going to be required to have two writing flags. It's not necessarily more writing. It's more of a change in the way that writing courses are handled, with more emphasis on the kinds of feedback students will get, both from their instructors and from each other. There's also more of an emphasis on the future, on preparing them for life after school.
What course do you teach?
I teach BIO325L, laboratory experience in genetics. It's an upper division lab course. We do quite a bit of transmission genetics, quite a bit of molecular genetics work. Everything from DNA fingerprinting, so that students can look at their own alleles, to a lab on genetically-modified organisms.
What's the writing aspect of it?
It was a substantial writing component course, and now it's a Writing Flag course. They have to write a research paper, and in order to do that they have to do quite a bit of reading of scientific literature in peer-reviewed journals. They might write, for instance, on genetically-modified organisms -- perhaps on the process of what it takes to create them, or on the potential risks. Or maybe they'll write about the genetic causes and mechanisms of a specific type of cancer. Some of the students have participated in original research, on campus or over the summer, and many of them write about that research.
Why is it so important for science students to be able to write?
What our students need more than anything, I think, is a sufficient level of scientific literacy, which includes not only writing but being able to read and critically evaluate scientific literature. That scientific literacy is something they're going to have to have no matter where they go once they finish school. If they go to medical school, they're going to take courses that require them to read scientific papers and to write. As physicians, they'll be expected, at a minimum, to keep up with current literature. Some students will go on to work in industry, and some will go on to graduate school. In all of these cases they're going to have to spend time with scientific literature, and they're going to have to write, whether for scientific journals, or for conferences, or for in-house reports.
Writing can be so much less defined than science. Does the fuzziness of it tend to bother natural sciences students?
I think so. They're used to being told the parameters of a class. They're used to being told: Here's a list of what you need to know. Then they can go and learn it. Whereas with writing they're very unsure about what their papers should look like in the end.
What seems to hold students back the most?
Two things, I think. They tend to wait too long to start the process. They don't realize how much of a process it is, how much re-writing and revising there should be, and so they wait until the end to start, and it's too late. The other thing is that they often have the idea that what they're writing is supposed to be really miraculous and incredible. If they would just start, though, they would realize that it doesn't have to be a masterpiece. I think that's actually why a lot of graduate students don't complete their degrees. They finish all their coursework, they do the research, but they don't write their dissertation. It's too daunting if it has to be perfect. Eventually, if you want to finish, you realize it's not going to be as big a work as you imagined it should be, and just get it done.
How do you help them overcome these obstacles?
We break it down for them. We have small assignments that lead up to the one big assignment. The first step is to choose a topic, and we give them a list of topics to choose from. They like to be able to choose, and it helps them become more invested in the topic. The next step is to have them go out and find a popular article on their topic, maybe something from The New York Times or Scientific American. That provides them with the basic information to get them started, and some key terms, and maybe the names of some important scientists. Then they write four smaller pieces that ultimately add up to one bigger research paper.
Does that process of breaking it down for them work?
Usually it does. They struggle with it at the beginning, but for the most part, once they really start reading, and writing, most of them discover that they're interested. The frustrating thing is that by time they get really interested in their topic, it's usually the end of the semester, and they have to turn their paper in. I think they sometimes feel as though they're cut off too early, as though they could use a few more weeks to really make it excellent.