[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Skip to Main Content


October 30, 2006
Volume 84, Number 44
pp. 45-46

Teaching Writing To Undergrads

Educators across the country are incorporating unique writing exercises into chemistry classes

Rachel Petkewich

Katherine A. Kantardjieff tells her students that she will not respond to e-mails written in text-messaging abbreviations. Instead, the biophysicist at California State University, Fullerton, tells them: "Use English."

Kantardjieff team-teaches with communications faculty a required, junior-level, writing-intensive, three-credit class for chemistry and biochemistry majors. She described the course at the American Chemical Society national meeting last month in San Francisco at a daylong symposium on integrating writing into the undergraduate chemistry curriculum.

Courtesy of Katherine A. Kantardjieff
Connected In Kantardjieff's class, students use a number of electronic resources, including editing software and citation managers.

More and more educators recognize that chemists-in-training are not well-equipped to effectively communicate chemistry in writing, so they have added a writing component to their classes. In the symposium, sponsored by the Division of Chemical Education, educators from both physical science departments and writing centers presented their approaches to both multiyear curricula and single classes.

Kantardjieff described the five major assignments in the Cal State Fullerton writing course: a review article, a journal paper, a grant proposal, a poster and seminar presentation, and an article for popular media. The best articles are submitted to the university's newspaper or the college's undergraduate research journal for publication.

Everything is done electronically: submitting work, editing and peer reviewing with markup tools, using citation managers, and even holding interactive classes over the Web. (Kantardjieff conducted classes from her hotel room while attending the ACS meeting.) Seven semesters since the first course was offered, she said, there's now a waiting list to sign up.

Debra L. Van Engelen, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Redlands in Southern California, articulated a theme among the science educators. "I'm a chemist and never planned on teaching writing, but as I read student lab reports, I couldn't figure out what the students knew," she said. And she had noticed that bad writing was not just a first-year problem; some seniors were just as incoherent. The problem, her department concluded, was that the students were required to write in science courses but were never actually taught how.

Several years ago, the Redlands chemistry department developed plans for incorporating a writing component into all of the classes in the bachelor's program, Van Engelen explained. For example, first-year students are introduced to scientific literature and revision of lab reports; sophomores focus on putting together organic chemistry lab notebooks; juniors write reports, memos, and articles; and seniors do peer review and prepare theses. In addition, the English department gave workshops so that faculty throughout the university could learn how to better teach and grade writing skills. Most of the chemistry professors noted in this article credit English or communications department faculty at their academic institutions for similar assistance, some of whom spoke at the symposium.

"I'm willing to work with colleagues to eradicate bad writing in the name of achieving literacy in documents such as lab reports," said John T. Ikeda Franklin, an English professor and director of the Writing Center at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. He has worked with the chemistry department at his school for the past eight years. Franklin said he has spent a good deal of time as a tutor telling students that passive voice is the proper style for scientific reports. "The difference between chemistry and autobiography," he said he explains to students, "is that a lab report is not the story of your life in the laboratory."

Franklin added that as chemistry faculty became more adept at teaching writing, they referred fewer students to the Writing Center. And as writing became more integrated in courses, other means to help students evolved, such as chemistry students trained to tutor others and a training handbook.

Writing can be incorporated into nonmajor science classes, too. At Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), a writing fellow—a tutor assigned to work with a specific class—helped non-science-major students and instructors learn to communicate science effectively. That fellow, Kirsten L. Boatwright, a master's degree student in English at MTSU, spoke positively about her experience in a six-week project. The project, designing a water taste test, posed a number of writing needs, including a request for funding from the university, the test protocol, and advertisements to get volunteers. Boatwright and Trixie G. Smith, director of the MTSU Writing Center, participated under the auspices of a national project called Science Education for New Civic & Environmental Responsibility (SENCER). MTSU inorganic chemistry professor Judith M. Iriarte-Gross, who organized the San Francisco symposium, oversaw the class.

Courtesy of Katherine A. Kantardjieff
Succinct Cal State Fullerton students write about and discuss their introduction for a scientific paper.

The importance of writing centers was underscored by Holly C. Gaede, a senior lecturer in the chemistry department at Texas A&M University. She said she called on her university's writing center when she revamped the traditional senior seminar class to be writing-intensive. The resulting assignments emphasize the ability to communicate with both technical and nonscientific audiences; the students have to write a review article (based on the Accounts of Chemical Research format) and a newspaper article (mirroring the New York Times style). Students also prepare related oral presentations. "One meeting a week for 14 weeks is not enough to change an awful writer into a great writer, but it's enough to make small improvements, which can be a great accomplishment," Gaede said.

Not only does students' writing improve, but their attitudes do as well, according to chemistry professor Tony Wallner, who implemented a writing-intensive senior seminar at Barry University in Florida after an eight-year collaboration with Missouri Western State University. He said, "The students had fear, trepidation, and anger at first." By the end of the semester, the comments had changed from "Why do I have to do this if I'm not an English major?" to sincere interest and appreciation.

Wallner, among other educators, also noted the distinction between a writing-intensive class, which targets assignments to hone particular writing skills and introduce different styles, and a writing-inclusive class, which includes exposition assignments in addition to, for example, mechanism questions, problem sets, or data analysis in a lecture or lab class. Educators find both types of classes valuable to students.

For example, Kathleen M. Halligan introduced a new writing-inclusive project into her organic chemistry lecture class last year. "Tell me in words about each step of a mechanism," the assistant professor said she instructs her students at York College of Pennsylvania.

Halligan started the project to get students reading the literature and give them a glimpse at what is going on outside the classroom. In addition to proposing and explaining in words a mechanism for a reaction in current literature, the student papers must summarize the research goals, explain how the featured reaction fits into the synthetic strategy outlined in the article, and summarize the significance of the authors' results.

At the end of the semester, Halligan was pleasantly surprised to hear that several students were so excited about the chemistry that they wanted to continue studying their reactions.

Writing projects can take various forms. Fifteen years ago, Allan K. Hovland, associate professor of chemistry at St. Mary's College of Maryland, was also looking for a way to incorporate writing and the use of primary literature into his inorganic lecture class, as well as to cultivate lifelong learning in his students. He thought about various ways chemists write on the job and decided to put "nominate a chemist for ACS National Award in Inorganic Chemistry" on the syllabus.

His students each research and write a lengthy paper in the style of a nomination letter, including biographical information and specific details about the chemistry of the nominee's projects. With their mock nominations, the students have picked chemists who ultimately became real-life award winners.

Hovland added that students take ownership of the project. If similar chemistry comes up in class over the course of the semester, students say, "My chemist does that," he explained.

Lab classes can also incorporate writing exercises. Associate professor Derek Gragson and assistant professor John P. Hagen teach physical chemistry labs at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. About five years ago, they overhauled the course curriculum. They cut down the number of assignments to allow more time for writing, created an integrated writing guide, and instituted peer review exercises.

In previous years, students relied on a writing manual and grading rubrics for guidance in preparing their assignments. But because the students' writing showed that they didn't connect the two tools appropriately, Hagen prepared the integrated writing guide and has seen improvement in student work. The integrated guide groups a description of each section of a report with the corresponding rubric and an example of a report.

Students also learn a lot by analyzing samples of writing that they and their classmates have done. The first exercise in the lab class involves writing an abstract and a materials and methods section of a lab report. The students then analyze the write-ups, using Calibrated Peer Review (CPR, cpr.molsci.ucla.edu), a Web-based program employed by hundreds of schools, Gragson said. Students use the program to read and score three "calibration" essays; then they score three of their classmates' essays, as well as their own.

In addition to reviewing write-ups using CPR, the Cal Poly students also prepare three group reports. Students rotate among three jobs: the lead author, the reviewer, and the editor who makes the corrections. Then each student chooses one of six experiments and writes up a full report without benefit of peer review before the report is submitted for grading.

Hagen said he hopes the exercises help prepare students who decide to pursue chemistry as a career and are expected to communicate meaningful written peer review of journal articles. In proper English sentences, of course, not text-messaging.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

Related Stories

Adjust text size:

A- A+

Articles By Topic