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How does science communication affect undergraduate pedagogy? “We have evidence that students learn more when they write,” says Ginger Shultz, assistant professor of chemistry. “We can’t escape writing and there are many layers of value to doing this.”
Shultz and Anne Gere, the director of the Sweetland Center for Writing, share a common goal: implement writing into chemistry courses to help students enhance both their understanding of the underlying concepts and their communication skills. They developed M-Write, a program that provides support to faculty who wish to incorporate writing assignments into their curricula.
Shultz explains how writing is incorporated into a class: “We specify an audience; we specify a role. The students have to translate the jargon and things they learn in class. Explaining in your own words is part of the mechanism of learning.”
These assignments are posed as real-world problems to be solved, such as a doctor asking a pharmacist for advice about a drug for a patient. The students are then required to take the principles they have learned in class and apply them to arrive at a solution that is framed in a way that suits a particular audience and situation.
M-Write Writing Fellows key to making it work
To help with this task, the instructors hire writing fellows: undergraduate students that have participated in the course during a previous semester. They provide guidance and structure to new students and help them streamline their writing assignments.
While the students in the classroom benefit from this approach, the undergraduate writing fellows employed to give students more one-on-one help for these assignments are learning first-hand how essential science communication is in their respective fields.
“Being able to communicate science effectively to people outside of the sciences and to other academics is incredibly important especially since science is by nature and by necessity very collaborative, “ says writing fellow Maiya Yu, an undergraduate majoring in Biochemistry and Mathematics who plans to become a professor. “It’s important to not lose accuracy and not lose the audience.”
Rachele Willard, a junior in Anthropology, writing fellow, and future doctor, also values the importance of science communication: “Communicating is not just in talking and expressing your own opinions, but being able to pick up on what people might be feeling or thinking.”
Writing fellow Sohini Pandit points out that,“Communicating is the way we get things done.
"Being able to articulate yourself establishes your knowledge and makes people feel more comfortable with what they have to do,” adds Pandit, a Biopsychology and Cognitive Neuroscience major who plans to become a trauma surgeon.
Shultz agrees that the M-Write program is prompting the fellows to grow as communicators, especially since communicating knowledge to others is part of the “learning-by-doing” method. “The fellows’ learning is really improving and their thinking about how to write,” says Shultz.
Provost's Teaching Innovation Prize Winner
M-Write: Writing to Learn in Large Introductory Courses Across Campus
Although writing-to-learn pedagogies — where students write about key course concepts — have been shown to foster student engagement and deepen learning, many faculty members do not employ these activities because of logistics, the time required to respond to student writing, and doubts about their ability to teach writing.
To address these concerns, Gere and Shultz developed M-Write, a program that includes an automated peer review system and trains undergraduates to become writing fellows, who provide formative feedback on student writing.
M-Write also partners with faculty to design and conduct writing-to-learn assignments and to ensure writing-to-learn is implemented in a sustainable way.
Over the last seven years, M-Write has been used in several of the largest courses on campus affecting more than 12,000 students. M-Write has been implemented in a variety of courses, including biology, chemistry, economics, materials science engineering, physics, statistics and mechanical engineering.
Anne Ruggles Gere, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Gertrude Buck Collegiate Professor of Education ; professor of English language and literature and director of the Sweetland Center for Writing
Ginger Shultz, assistant professor of chemistry
--From: University Record, April 26, 2019
Chemistry is not the only department implementing the write-to-learn approach to teaching. Through M-Write, Shultz and her colleagues help faculty tailor writing assignments to their classes with the hope of seeing similar pedagogical initiatives take root across the university. This can help faculty advisers, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students master the art of communicating with their students and with each other.
Shultz stresses that, just like science communication, learning is multi-faceted. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all. Every classroom is different. Every subject is different. This strategy of adapting to context has been working well with M-Write because we provide practical solutions. We try to meet faculty where they are and partner with them instead of coming in and saying, ‘You should do this.’ Wherever you are as an instructor, you’ve got to make it work in your context.”
M-Write Fellows Program Develops Skill in Science Communication Beyond the Lab
Science communication has become a very popular and creative avenue for scientists to convey their research to the general public. Learning to write lab reports and present data to a technical audience familiar with that specific field are valuable skills. However, being able to converse with and relate to a non-scientist who is interested in current scientific issues requires more than knowing the science. At the University of Michigan, MiSciWriters, RELATE, and outreach events such as ComSciConMI-18 aim to help graduate students and postdoctoral fellows learn to explain current hot topics in scientific research to a lay audience in engaging ways. Undergraduates at the University of Michigan are gaining experience through the M-Write Fellows Program.
Some other Science Communication Efforts
- AsapScience –began in June of 2012 and has since created almost 200 educational videos on topics such as “The Science of Motivation,” “What Happens When You Freeze to Death,” and “Are You Capable of Murder?”
- Dr. Raychelle Burks, a former crime lab analyst who is currently a professor of chemistry at St. Edward’s University, created SciPop Talks! and has been featured on the Science Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science.
Analysis of student writing as means of learning chemistry has been published by the Shultz group in Chemical Education Research and Practice, Journal of Chemical Education, CBE – Life Sciences Education, and Science Education.