Collaborative writing course offers valuable insights to STEM students

February 3, 2023

Collaborative writing course offers valuable insights to STEM students

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“No matter what a STEM student chooses to do, the better they can write and communicate, it’s only going to add value to whatever their career path is,” said Susan Lang, professor in the Department of English and director of Ohio State’s Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing. “If you’ve got a couple of people interviewing for a job, and the science is relatively equal, the soft skills — like writing, like working collaboratively — those are going to make the difference.”

Tyler Billings, a fourth-year PhD student in biochemistry, said that he and many of his peers also found little focus on scientific writing beyond high school.

“Maybe there’s a misconception that [scientific writing is] more formulaic than it actually is and that it’s just writing manuscripts — when, in reality, it’s also writing proposals or making a script or an oral communication of some kind,” Billings said.

Bridging this gap in training became one of the goals of the Cellular, Molecular and Biochemical Sciences Program (CMBP) at Ohio State. While the program has been running for 12 years, program co-director Karin Musier-Forsyth, Ohio Eminent Scholar and professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, says that the program, for years, utilized workshops by external writing experts to fulfill the need for science writing instruction. But in 2018, after gathering feedback from students enrolled in the program, Musier-Forsyth and then-co-director, Michael Ibba, determined that wasn’t enough.

“When we surveyed them about how their experiences were, they always said they wanted more instruction in writing,” Musier-Forsyth said.

That’s when the pair contacted Lang to brainstorm how to develop a writing class that include more genres common to scientific writing. The course, Scientific Writing — which is listed as CHEM 6790 and MICRBIO 6790 — was offered for the first time in 2019.

From the beginning, Scientific Writing was a cross-discipline affair. All three faculty members taught the class in 2019 and 2020, and since then, Lang and Musier-Forsyth have shared teaching responsibilities.

“What we’ve done that makes this course better, makes a lot of people very interested in this course, is created a true collaboration between the disciplines,” Lang said, adding that neither the science nor writing components feel like a forced addition.

Musier-Forsyth says that each instructor brings her area of expertise to the course. As an editor of a scientific journal and author of many papers, Musier-Forsyth teaches the specifics of scientific writing and how it will prove fruitful to a STEM career. Lang, also a journal editor, instructs students in the processes of drafting, revising, and editing texts, as well as how to make the content accessible to a wider audience.

The types of assignments students tackle from week to week is equally diverse, as each assignment allows them to write about the research they are already conducting or to outline their predictions about the results of their latest experiments.

“There is content motivating what our [second-year] students are writing that’s particular to their work, their labs, their areas,” Lang said. “We’re not just saying, ‘Oh here’s a dummy set of data. Go play with it.’”

The students also engage in five-minute “lightning talks,” to practice pitching their scientific ideas, which was one of Billings’ favorite parts of the class.

“That was really fun because it was kind of like sitting through a miniature conference, and I thought it was a way to keep the audience engaged, and it was a really fun way to see everyone’s videos," Billings said.

While earning her bachelor’s degree at Baldwin Wallace University, Megan Sullivan, a third-year graduate student working toward her PhD in chemistry, said she received some writing training, such as drafting write-ups in a biochemistry class or creating figure captions in several biology classes. None of her core classes, however, offered in-depth guidance on how to present scientific ideas to a broader audience.

“At the undergraduate and graduate level, institutions want to make sure that their students…can do the science,” Sullivan said. “But they don’t really focus on ‘Can you explain the [value] of your experiment?’”

Sullivan said instructors also highlighted so-called “terms of art” that commonly overlap between the scientific community and the general population.

“The word ‘significant’ has a very specific meaning to scientists," Sullivan said. "It means ‘statistically speaking, not just random,’ but to a general audience that’s just an adjective to emphasize something.”

Billings added that the course left him better prepared for future industry conferences and external promotion of research projects, and that — while taking the course — he was asked to review several scholarly articles. “That coincided with the editorial review process unit that we had in the course, so I was able to apply what I learned in class directly…it made for a much more effective review.”

For these students, the real-world application of the skills they learn in Scientific Writing is limitless. Sullivan says that learning about the process behind grant-writing or the publication of scientific journals is critical to the success of those in the STEM field.

“It wasn’t just, ‘Go write about your science,’" Sullivan said. "It was, ‘Here’s all the processes‎ that go on behind the scenes when you’re writing about your science.’ I thought that was really valuable.”

Sullivan summed it up this way: “Communication is vital to all of science. Your science doesn’t matter if you can’t tell people why it’s important.”

This article was originally published on the College of Arts and Sciences website.

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