Center for Instructional
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Robert Mitchell
Julia Sapin
Kathleen Saunders
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Robert Mitchell
Department of Geology



Thinking Scientifically through Writing


Success in science requires more than applying the quantitative elements of principles. As a science educator I strive to help students develop an understanding of the scientific process so they can think through a problem critically while interpreting data. Part of their preparation comes from practicing the quantitative aspects of a scientific concept. I make frequent use of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and statistics in my courses to develop and apply theories and for analyzing data. Students who master the quantitative principles and theories may do well professionally, but the most successful scientists are those who can also effectively communicate scientific information in writing.

The Center of Education, Equity, and Diversity, the meeting place for the Multicultural Faculty Fellows Proximity of Western Washington University to the Lake Whatcom watershed / Google Maps

I incorporate writing into a senior/graduate level course called Surface-Water Hydrology (see GEOL 472/572 syllabus). The four-credit course is a small lecture and project-based geology elective that focuses on the elements of the hydrologic cycle: precipitation, infiltration, evapotranspiration (i.e., evaporation to the atmosphere), and runoff processes in the nearby Lake Whatcom watershed. In addition to this content, the course includes quantitative reasoning, environmental literacy, contextual experiences, technology literacy, and writing, the component I find to be the most challenging to teach.

What do I want them to know about scientific writing?


Like most professors, I write, edit, and can typically distinguish "good" writing from "bad" writing, but I was not taught how to teach writing. I had to consciously sit down and think about what I wanted students to learn about scientific and technical writing, other than merely the grammatical aspects. How would I teach what I wanted them to know? The process started with self-examination of why I write, how I write, and some pedagogical experimentation.

My primary writing goal is to help students develop their scientific thinking through writing. Scientists must be able to identify a scientific question, design experiments, and collect, analyze and interpret data. A typical technical document is structured around this process, consisting of the following sections: Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion. Learning to write in this format allows students to organize information and their thinking, and to explicitly review the fundamental spirit of the scientific process.

Student with a streamflow meter

I also decided that I wanted students to realize that the process of writing is an integral element to learning science. I discovered this through personal experience, as a graduate student in physics. My professor and mentor would always include an essay question on his exams because it was his opinion that stepping through the mathematical solution of a physics problem did not fully demonstrate conceptual understanding on the student's part. He also used the student's writing as a means to assess comprehension of a physics principle. He believed that if students did not fully understand a concept, it would become apparent in their writing. Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman believes if you cannot effectively communicate to someone the essence of your research, then you do not fully understand the problem yourself. With this in mind, I make use of writing when teaching science to help my students learn the concepts.

Naturally, I also want students to learn the mechanics that define good scientific writing, such as using appropriate grammar and developing figures and tables, all of which are conventions that are relatively easy to learn and teach. In addition, I want them to know that good scientific writing has a clear and concise style, because technical writing is typically read and absorbed quickly. A powerful rule to which I often refer from the Elements of Style is "Use the active voice and omit needless words."

How do I teach them good scientific writing?

I facilitate the writing process by means of contextual projects related to my research in the Lake Whatcom watershed with the Institute for Watershed Studies at Western Washington University (WWU). Since about 1998, we have been collecting stream discharge data and precipitation and climate variables to improve water balance estimates for Lake Whatcom. I assign four small projects where students use these real data to examine a hydrologic question (e.g., precipitation variability in the watershed). The students must then analyze the data, interpret the results, and summarize everything in a scientific report. See Project 2 with the GIS Exercise as an example. The inquiry experience and report-writing allows students to practice and understand the core concepts of the scientific process, but on a smaller scale than a typical term project. Although the reports have different topics, each report follows the same organizational format, so through repetition and feedback the students learn how to write the elements of a scientific report. Also, these contextual projects improve learning, as students are invested in a scientific question which involves their communities' drinking water source.


It wasn't obvious to me at first, but I soon realized that students need clear writing directions and coaching. Initially, I would review the quantitative foundations required to develop a science principle in detail, but offered little instruction in expanding on them through writing. Hence, students had trouble with their writing, and I struggled with the grading because of the lack of consistency in formats and styles. In retrospect, this problem occurred because I originally viewed writing as a secondary component of the course and disconnected it from actually learning the content. To remedy this, I decided to actively incorporate writing instruction in a variety of ways.

Report Template

As one step, I developed a scientific report template, which serves as a writing guide for students and an assessment tool for me. It summarizes the voice, tense, and content elements of the sections of a typical scientific paper: Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion. The template also contains an example of a properly designed table, figure, and appendix, along with text describing their attributes. To maintain consistency I enforce details like font, font size, line spacing, margin sizes, and section organization. I am constantly revising the template because I, too, am learning more about writing as I teach.

I restrict the length of student reports to two pages (1.5 line spacing), both to encourage students to write concisely and to make the writing/revision process easier for me. Although abbreviated, the attributes of a one-paragraph Introduction for a two-page paper are the same for a one-page Introduction for a 10-page research paper. Instead of one long term paper, these small reports are graded efficiently and returned to students so that they can apply lessons learned to their next project report. I read each report and offer comments using the template as a guide. Most of my feedback is directed toward organization and conciseness and will frequently refer them back to the template. I use point values to weigh the importance of each element in the template, and use this as a basis to assign a grade to the report. Just as my graduate school professor demonstrated, students who have difficulty putting their thoughts into words typically lack a deep understanding of the concept. For this reason, almost half the points of a report are associated with the Discussion section, because it is this section that allows me to assess the students' understanding of the science concept. My hope is that as students advance from project to project, they will discover their comprehension of the science correlates directly to their ability to express their thinking in writing.

Writing Tip of the Day

In addition, I use daily writing tips. They only take a few minutes and are helpful because they foster a consistent writing dialogue throughout the quarter. My willingness to forgo some scientific content for writing instruction also demonstrates to students my commitment to my belief that writing is central to learning science. I may review a point in the template, or comment on aspects such as audience, style, voice, tense, or grammar, or discuss common errors after grading a set of reports. The daily writing tips are amended in a Word document that I make available to the students. During the term, I occastionally ask the students to write down a writing tip that is helpful, and I am often delighted to read that most everyone can remember at least one or two tips. I do not require a writing textbook for the course, but I do refer students to textbook resources, reputable web sites (e.g., OWL), and of course, WWU's Writing Center.

Do my teaching strategies work?

Student by water

From my perception, my students' writing improves from report-to-report during the term, most significantly in cases where I know students are genuinely trying to further their writing skills. While some of the course's hydrology content is sacrificed in lieu of writing instruction, the depth of learning of the content that is taught improves because of the writing. Most importantly, students seem to understand better how to think scientifically. I get verbal feedback from students saying that they appreciate my approach and that their writing skills have improved.

But, how do I assess my writing practices? Can I quantify learning and communicate my success effectively to my peers? This is my challenge. As a scientist, I'm working on how to constructively teach and measure outcomes from writing pedagogy in my coursework. m truly attempting to transcend boundaries and "walk the talk" in terms of writing across the disciplines.

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