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Why science students shouldn’t be afraid to write

Science & Technology by

For students in the Faculty of Science, the typical evaluation consists of a knowledge-based exam. Large class sizes, characteristic of first and second-year courses, often require evaluators to depend heavily on multiple choice questions. For better or for worse, this means that science students are rarely subjected to the torments of essay writing. In fact, no current program in the Faculty of Science requires their students to take a writing course, or an English course, to graduate.

Gary Brouhard is an associate professor in the Department of Biology with a background in chemical engineering and, surprisingly, philosophy. With a prominent position at a prestigious university, a successful microtubule lab, and several publications in renowned scientific journals, Brouhard is a top-notch scientist. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, where as an interdisciplinary student he developed writing skills that he would appreciate later in his career.

Brouhard argues that writing courses are valuable for any budding scientist, and reflected on his own experience as an undergrad.

“As a result of doing a [Bachelor of Arts] in philosophy, I had to write lots and lots of essays,” Brouhard said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “Every course had three or four 10-page essays that formed the basis of your grade. It was through that process that I got the most practice in writing argumentative essays. That skill has proven as useful, if not more useful, than any other at the current stage in my career.”

In academia, Brouhard identified two major areas where writing skills are crucial: Grant writing and publications. For publications, being able to write well is essential to making difficult-to-understand research clear and appealing to both editors and peer reviewers. Often, all it takes is the half-page cover letter to convince editors to accept or reject an application. Brouhard identified writing in this case as a catalyst.

“The better you are at writing, the better you are at getting grants,” Brouhard said. “The better you are at writing, the better you are at getting high-impact papers, which increases your chances of getting grants, which are already high because you’re good at writing.”

Whether the end-goal is to become a professor or not, the ability to write a strong argument is an important skill. The harsh reality is that any student interested in pursuing a graduate education will eventually be faced with writing a thesis, which will require them to make an argument, organize their ideas, think critically, and express themselves clearly. This can be a real challenge for students who have had minimal practice writing long-format essays in their undergraduate classes.

According to Associate Professor Tamara Western, associate dean (Academic), the Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) does not mandate that students take a course in writing.

“All of our programs are required-credit heavy, especially if students are doing an honours or joint program, or if they wish to complete a minor,” Western said. “Thus, to allow B.Sc. students to have space in their programs for electives, an English [or] writing course is not an absolute requirement.”

Science majors often have more than 60 required credits, and honours programs more than 70. In a more extreme case, a non-honours major in biological physics at McGill has to complete 82 credits of required physics, biology, math, and computer science courses. This leaves only eight credits—less than three classes—for the student to use on electives.

Nancy Nelson, advisor for the biology program and member of the Department of Biology curriculum committee, shared her own ideas on the matter.

“One reason I think we don’t insist on English courses in our Science majors is the fact that our largest cohort comes from CEGEP, where they have [already] taken English, French, philosophy, lifestyle gym, and others,” Nelson said.

This cohort of the B.Sc. enters university at the U1 level, and includes students who pursued AP and IB programs in their secondary education.

Science students may face challenges due to their lack of experience in writing argumentative essays. But Western defended the lack of writing requirements by pointing out that many of the upper-level courses required for a science degree do involve some degree of writing.

“With regards to writing practice within our degrees, students are exposed to significant discipline-specific writing activities in a large proportion of our 400-500 level courses,” Western said. “[These include] paper critiques, grant proposals, and reviews, as well as lab reports.”

Approximately 50 per cent of undergraduate science students undertake an independent research course. These courses require drafting research proposals and reports, putting their writing skills to the test.

For those interested in developing their writing, Nelson and Western both recommended two essential courses for science students: CEAP 250 (Research Essay and Rhetoric) and CCOM 314 (Communicating Science), which share the common aim of improving their students’ ability to communicate effectively with an audience.

Available in the Fall and Winter semesters, CEAP 250 is an academic writing course offered by the McGill Writing Center that is open to students of all disciplines. The class develops students’ scholarly writing and critical thinking skills.

According to Sarah Wolfson, CEAP 250’s instructor, at the end of the term students should be able to summarize scholarly articles, conduct library research, write critiques and research essays, and think critically about texts and arguments. The course also delves into the more technical aspects of writing. Students can expect to learn how to properly cite sources, revise and edit their work, and avoid common grammatical errors.

Wolfson confirmed that science students often do not have the chance to write longer compositions during their time at McGill. Even in the courses Western mentioned that do require writing, the professors’ focus  is primarily on the content, and not the style of the writing.  CEAP 250, on the other hand, teaches academic writing skills that will later be useful for writing grants, research articles, and funding proposals, to name a few.

Students pursuing CEAP 250 can look forward to smaller class sizes and a greater level of interaction with their professor than in many science courses. Wolfson says that students also receive detailed feedback on their compositions.

“One unique feature of the course is the audio feedback that instructors give students,” Wolfson said. “On each major writing assignment, students receive a personalized MP3 file with specific feedback about how to revise their work. It’s a method that allows for a lot of individual attention.”

The McGill Writing Center also offers CESL 500: Research Essay and Rhetoric, a sister course to CEAP 250 with the same content and assignment structure but geared toward students for whom English is not their first language.

While CEAP 250 is designed to help students with their academic writing skills, CCOM 314 focuses on how students can communicate about science to a broader audience.

The course covers how to explain scientific knowledge to specific audiences, how to take into account social and ethical issues when doing so, and how to employ the appropriate scope and vocabulary to suit a given audience. Diane Dechief, faculty lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre and founder and professor of CCOM 314, wrote about the objectives of the course in an email to the Tribune.

“By the end of the course, I’d like students to be aware of real life opportunities for communicating science to a broader public,” Dechief wrote. “They should be able to explain theories or concepts from their field with an awareness of specific audiences, and to be intentional about using metaphors responsibly and avoiding jargon.”

The course has five different writing assignments: An article that explains and introduces new findings, an Opinion-Editorial, a policy brief, a profile of a McGill researcher, and a podcast. For the profile assignment, Dechief explained that students have the opportunity to reach out to a McGill researcher by email and make a request to interview them. Students then meet and interview the researcher, transcribe the interview, create an outline, and write a draft for the profile.

Like CEAP 250, CCOM 314 also offers audio feedback for drafts and small class sizes with a 25-student maximum that allows DeChief to give her students a lot of individualized attention to their writing.

Although McGill does not require a writing course for science students, those interested in pursuing a career in science should consider signing up for one. Most science majors do, regrettably, have limited space in their degree for electives—but CEAP 250 and CCOM 314 are excellent options that will pay dividends throughout scientists’ careers.

 

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