Scientists Need Writing Skills, Too: Integrating Scientific Writing into Your University’s Writing Center

Jordan Wilkerson is a chemistry major at the University of Central Arkansas. Next year, he’ll be a senior working towards finishing his degree. When he’s not reading and learning, he enjoys the opportunity to be unproductive.

I attend the relatively small school, University of Central Arkansas (UCA). Our motto here is, “Do it like a big bear!” But after having been here for four years, I’m still not sure what that entails. Another motto that floats around the university is one that originates from my university’s writing center: “We can help with any writing, at any level, for any class.” Being one of the center’s tutors as well as a chemistry major, I am more familiar with this motto than most science majors. This also makes me a rarity because most students in chemistry and other science disciplines do not consider the writing center as a valuable resource. While the UCA Writing Center’s slogan holds true in most cases, it fails to resonate with students in the natural sciences. As both a chemistry major and center tutor, I have taken the initiative to bridge the gap between the two fields by developing curriculum for scientific writing in the writing center. This way, science majors will be able to better use the center to their advantage, just like others major at our school.

Currently, the writing center mostly caters to liberal arts majors. In order to broaden our outreach to science majors, I’m working on tip sheets and humorous, informative videos so those majoring in a science can likewise use the center to improve their writing skills. Scientists like us should emphasize the necessity of communicating science not only to other scientists, but also to non-scientists, and writing centers are a powerful resource to strengthen that skill.

Personally, I did not make the connection between the writing center and the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, and biology) until I took a technical writing course taught by the director of the Writing Center. When she suggested I apply to be a tutor at the center, I regretted to inform her that I was one of those “science majors,” thus making me unfit to call myself a writing tutor, right? Wrong. To my surprise, my chemistry major pride made her even more adamant to have me as a tutor. That was when I first heard the writing center’s admittedly catchy slogan. She pointed out that more tutors from the sciences were needed to help the center develop materials for that type of writing. Before I knew it, I acquired her passion to empower science writers and took on my aforementioned project!

I started with baby steps, though. First, I skimmed a few books to make sure I understood exactly how scientific writing works.  For those wondering, the most helpful book I read was How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper by Robert Day.

Despite the goofy looking guy on the cover, it is enormously helpful. http://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Publish-Scientific-Paper/dp/0313330409

Once I completed the surprisingly enjoyable prelude to beginning my project, I looked at a component of it that would be extremely fun to produce: an informative video. There’s a dual purpose of making the videos. First, they explain a concept of scientific writing in a memorable way that people might actually enjoy watching. Second, they advertise the writing center and how it can help them with their scientific writing.

For the first video (and I’ve only made one so far), the assistant director of the writing center, Jennifer, another tutor Dylan, and I acted out a scene that demonstrated what experimental error in a lab report or scientific paper is really referring to. Here I am preparing one of the props for the video moments before it’s on the other guy’s face.

Don’t worry! The solution in the Erlenmeyer flask is just water and some color dye I randomly found in the stock room. Or I think it was color dye… Kidding! Anyway, here’s the video if you want to watch it!

For my next video, I intend to highlight the importance of clarity when writing the experimental procedure section of a lab report or scientific paper.

Here’s a fun fact about the directors and tutors at writing centers: they’re really good at writing! Most tutors at university writing centers have pretty awesome writing abilities. The only problem is that they haven’t had the chance to familiarize themselves with the idiosyncrasies of scientific writing. At least, not yet. So, if your writing center doesn’t have resources for science majors, the writing center at my university has a web page with online tools that you can use. I plan to add several more resources such as tips sheets on how to type equations into Microsoft Word and a casual presentation on the elements of scientific writing for the other tutors at the center, so we can all offer help to the stressed students who come in with their scientific papers.

While that covers my science writing project, there are surely some ideas I didn’t think of. If you have any cool ideas, please let me know! While you’re at it, try them out at your college, too! All it takes is one science major (or even a group of them) to get involved with the writing center at your school to develop a scientific writing curriculum. Or your ACS chapter could help with science writing as an outreach activity. It’s a bit of a commitment, but it’s a rewarding experience. What I’ve done so far has been great!

I would’ve really enjoyed having this as a freshman writing my first lab reports. I’d imagine most freshmen at most universities would want to use the writing center to help them better their lab reports. And hopefully, they will be able to soon enough!

UCA Chemistry Majors representing our school at ACS conference!

2 thoughts on “Scientists Need Writing Skills, Too: Integrating Scientific Writing into Your University’s Writing Center

  1. Hi Jordan, thanks for sharing this. At your institution, do you see any chance of re-using students’ lab reports in other contexts of their study? For example, a lab report could be transformed into some kind of article for a campus magazine which in turn could then be used to cover ethical questions in another seminar/course.
    Bräuer/Schindler (2011) call this approach “textrecycling” and consider it an effective way to connect a task with the overall learning process and to allow a transfer of competence.

    • That sounds like that could be a great idea! However, the project might be out of scope of my college’s writing center. Since the professors who direct the writing center are not assigning the papers nor teaching any courses in the sciences, it would be difficult for them to try to integrate text recycling into science majors’ courses for their majors.
      Of course, strong communication between the writing center directors and chemistry, biology, and physics professors could help make this work, but this dovetails into another problem. While the writing center already has some basic materials for scientific writing thanks to a couple biology professors, the correspondence between the sciences and the writing center is currently tenuous. If we did text recycling, it would be when the ties between the professors in the two academic fields are stronger, so a complex project like that won’t just fall apart due to weak communication. I’ll still propose the idea to my school’s writing center director to see what she thinks, though! Thanks for the idea!

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