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Beyond the Lab Report: Writing in Science Class

July 18, 2019

By: Kendall Hunt RPD with contributions from the writing team of By Design Science grades 1-8

In a 2012 episode of popular television show MythBusters, host Adam Savage (quoting his collaborator Alex Jason) observed that “the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.” The quote went viral, and despite its humorous nature, it touches on a valuable educational concept: the importance of scientific writing.

Why is scientific writing important?

All scientists need to communicate their ideas and discoveries. There’s a practical reason, of course: Arizona-based science teachers Tara Dale and Mandi White tell their students that “scientists enjoy being paid for their work, and if they don't communicate their results, they receive no money.” But Dale and White also emphasize that failure to communicate one’s discoveries, especially potentially life-saving ones, isn’t just monetarily foolish, it’s morally “deplorable.” Scientists have a responsibility to share what they learn, using their knowledge to benefit humanity. Writing lets them do that.

Scientific writing also requires students to define terms and communicate their results clearly. Maria Grant of California State University and Diane Lapp of San Diego State University explain that “since scientific information is shared by popular press writers and professionals working in the discipline … [we need to] teach [students] to read and write like a citizen interested in being informed about scientific topics and also like a person who may eventually work in science.” By explaining complex topics in simple terms, students develop the ability to “translate” a specific language into everyday terms, a necessary skill for any career.

What does scientific writing look like?

The typical mental picture of “scientific writing” is a formulaic, rigidly organized, meticulously graded lab report. Although lab reports are “excellent practice for college- and career-bound students,” according to Dale and White, they’re far from the only type of scientific writing your students should be doing.

Educator Mary Tedrow advocates for “frequent, ungraded, easily shared, and informally assessed writing,” which she says “builds content-area understanding while improving fluency.” Such informal exercises can be more open-ended, encouraging kids to think beyond the “right-and-wrong” dichotomy. Certainly, accuracy is important, but curiosity and individual reflection are what leads to true discovery. Open-ended questions such as “What do you notice?” guide students to think—and write—using scientific language, giving them the knowledge and skills to write a formal report when the time comes.

So what can these “non-lab-report” writing assignments look like? Dale and White offer several unique ideas, including perspective stories, in which students might, for example, pretend to be a bite of food on a journey through the digestive system. Other possibilities include children’s stories, diaries of or “interviews” with animals or other organisms, and even persuasive letters written to encourage local businesses to make environmentally friendly decisions. And in terms of assessments, Amy Roediger, science department chairperson at Mentor High School in Mentor, Ohio, suggests that teachers incorporate more short-answer and essay questions, rather than solely multiple-choice questions.

The ByDesign Science program is built to incorporate scientific writing in both informal and formal ways, giving students the tools to practice their writing and master the content. The companion Science Journal, with content tied to each chapter, is used as a recording device for the inquiry activities as well as to summarize important lesson concepts. Additionally, students are asked to journal about their understanding of the lesson and how it relates to their Adventist education. Though Open Inquiry writing prompts, as well as Lifestyle Challenges, Faith Connections, and Home Connections, the Science Journal encourage diverse methods of scientific writing, setting students up for success!

Connecting writing and science will ideally lead students to realize that “scientific writing” and “writing” aren’t so different after all. In fact, as Roediger puts it, “Hopefully, we all agree that the basic tenet of good writing is to state a claim and support it with evidence. What could be more scientific than that?”

What unique activities have you used to bring writing into your science classroom?