Science Writing: Syllabus


Instructor Information

Fall 2012

James Collier
Office: 252 Lane
Hours: 12:30-1:30 T,R and by appointment
Cell: On Request

Course Description

Writing in and about the natural and social sciences. Students will study documents such as abstracts, research proposals, and journal articles, and will analyze the development of disciplinary writing practices, and will study non-fiction science writing for general audiences.

Course Goals

• Outline the development of disciplinary writing strategies and identify how those developments shape, and are shaped by, disciplinary structures;

• Recognize normative conventions governing scientific writing and their influence on the organization, use, and distribution of scientific knowledge and information;

• Communicate specialist knowledge and information to non-specialist audiences;

• Study, critique and apply strategies used in science popularizations;

• Examine the role of science in public communication and debate.

The Story of the Course

Narrative Arc

Every course tells a story. The initial story I will tell speaks to the assumptions, goals and practices guiding the class. However, your experience of a course — particularly of what you want to learn — is more than the sum of these parts. I ask you to consider the class as more than a collection of atomized requirements and tasks. Rather, I want you to see how the class achieves meaning through the ways you learn. To tell the story of Science Writing, then, I would ask you to reflect on the ways that you best learn the concepts and practices the course addresses. In so doing, I ask that you look beyond the basic structure of the course to find what, and how, you want to learn.

I assume that you are deeply and uniquely interested in science and in how we make meaning, knowledge and understanding through writing and communication. I understand you as possessing, and in the process of possessing, specialized knowledge and information. And just as you possess specialized knowledge, you are members of the lay public affected by other specialists, and institutions, possessing, holding and distributing information. In this course, I will treat you as engaged and creative specialists, lay persons and communicators.

To convey your knowledge to diverse audiences in unique settings necessitates that you learn the strategies of accomplished science communicators. As future specialist communicators, you will craft messages using rapidly changing, increasingly powerful, integrated, convenient media. While writing remains the undeniable focus of this course, you will have opportunities develop your speaking and, to a lesser degree, visual design skills. Ultimately, this course will prepare you to communicate knowledge and information through various means to audiences of experts, professionals and laypersons.

Formal Writing Assignments

Science Writing is a survey course. As such, the course approaches the kinds of documents you will write as genres (e.g., the proposal, the research article). However, we will look beyond genres at the contexts —"bigger picture" — that influence, and are influenced by, the interaction of language, meaning, and culture. The course, then, is not simply about teaching you the mechanics of producing certain documents, rather to have you analyze and incorporate the ways in which creating meaning and understanding are the products of individual and collective effort.

Informal Assignments and Exercises

The informal assignments act as a kind of check or point of emphasis. I want to emphasize how to ask relevant questions on the readings and how to collaborate in gathering resources for a shared project. However, I do not feel this work requires the same kinds of evaluation as more elaborated assignments.


Why oral presentations in a writing class? Why debates? First, and pragmatically, your future employers demand that speaking skills receive more attention. Second, and theoretically, a trend in which I am a participant is to examine writing as influencing, and being influenced by, a constellation of communications practices. One way to map this constellation is to study the history and culture of academic disciplines. Disciplines emphasize different communications practices and pass on their principles (usually informally) to students. For example, the technical fields (the natural and social sciences, engineering and business) approach communication differently from one another and differently from the humanities. Within disciplines the practice of writing, while considered a prerequisite to becoming a successful professional, holds greater or lesser prominence. Oral presentation abilities, visual design abilities, reading abilities, and abstract reasoning abilities among others, compete with writing as signature practices of a discipline and a profession. We will examine the place of various communication practices in fields and disciplines related to the natural and social sciences.

Of course, the occasion and need to speak clearly and concisely arises with frequency in classroom, laboratory, and professional settings. For the debates I have adapted the "Oxford-style" format to lend organization and focus to the presentation. The oral presentations reflect the kinds of formal and informal debates society currently holds regarding science and technology. I chose to have you investigate scientific controversies because they involve issues that have direct bearing on our collective future. And as much as these controversies turn on the current and future state of scientific knowledge, technological development, and moral reasoning, they turn on the ability of participants to effectively communicate with one another. These controversies are fascinating and complex and will add spice to the admittedly straightforward process of studying and producing science writing.


The reading requirements for the course are manageable — even, if I may dare say, reasonable. Certain days, however, demand a heavy reading load. All of you have developed strategies for dealing with the amount of reading required by courses. You have learned to skim, to read closely certain parts of a text, to review subheadings to get the sense of an argument — steps necessary for you to deal with the rising tide of text-based information you encounter now and will encounter in the future. In fact, many of you may completely abandon the convoluted prose of your textbooks to locate relevant formulas or illustrations.We will discuss reading strategies further in class.

Please note on the course calendar that I have added "background" information. The background information's sources are varied — YouTube, Wikipedia, PDFs, web pages. If time or curiosity allow, please take a look at these sources. They will lend an additional framework to the material we discuss on a given day.


I use a wiki entitled Science Controversies to supplement our class. I will ask you to post your work in this class to the wiki. You may be new to using a wiki. Among other things, wikis allow for easily embedding media, for collaboration and for receiving feedback. I chose to use this wiki because it's public.


In designing a course I consider how I would take it — aside from simply fulfilling requirements. Keeping in mind that we possess idiosyncratic learning styles, let me offer a few tips.

    Know What You Want: At the beginning of the semester honestly assess your strengths and weakness as a scientific communicator, generally, and a writer, specifically. The course assignments are flexible enough to allow you work on what you need and what you find stimulating. Still, if you feel the course does not adequately address your personal and professional concerns, let me know. The assignments can be tailored to your needs and we can work together on any specific areas of writing and scientific communication you desire.

    Keep Perspective: Consider the relative value of assignments. Formal writing assignments can be revised until the last day of the semester. Get the most you can out of the course but keep your workload reasonable. The best advice I can give is to begin early on formal writing assignments, meet deadlines, and start the semester strong by making sure you take care of informal assignments requirements. If you get informal writing out of the way you will have more time at the end of the semester when time is of the essence.

    Meet Teams: There is a collaborative component to the course. I take obligations to groups quite seriously and assume you will as well. I do not want any one finishing this course feeling that they shouldered an unfair burden in collaborative work. Since you, as professionals, will work collaboratively on the vast majority of projects, now is the time to develop good habits working with groups.

    Consult With Me: I am available to you well beyond office hours. I keep regular hours in my office, but if you need me do not hesitate to call or e-mail to set up a time to meet. A brief personal point: I like being on-line — perhaps too much. To discipline myself and my writing life I have decided not to be on-line (as much) at home. I do answer e-mail promptly; still, if you send a message after 7 p.m. you will get a response from me the next day.

    Have Fun: I know "fun" is not the first (or second) notion to leap to mind when you think of science writing. However, this class may be one of the last opportunities you have to creatively and rigorously work on your writing and communication skills before your career begins in earnest. Try to work beyond the common wisdom and expectations you have developed about academic courses. A number of fascinating issues lie at the heart of science communication — the nature of language, meaning and reference; the role of persuasion, moral reasoning and public deliberation; and the relationship of experts, professionals and the lay public in making decisions about science, technology and society. These issues, I believe, are fun insofar as they have direct bearing on our shared well-being. The joy of science writing is in the challenge, in the puzzlement, and in the work, of making meaning.

If you have any questions at any time, please let me know.

A Quick Word

    "Not everyone wants to write for a general audience and not everyone can do it well. But clearly, there is a place in the academy for those who can. From a college's point of view, it is important to disseminate faculty research broadly. Many grantmaking agencies depend to a degree on public support for research, which means that telling the public about your professors' useful research makes it more likely that your institution will get grants. Public support increases legislators' enthusiasm for public institutions, too.

    For the individual scholar, translating academic jargon into language comprehensible to those beyond your immediate field is a humbling experience. It makes you realize how far your work is from real life, and how difficult it is to convince people that what you are doing is interesting and worthwhile. Using accessible language also makes academe a more user-friendly place, allowing professors and students from other fields to understand what is going on in unfamiliar disciplines

    If we take an even broader perspective, we see that as scholars, we also owe an explanation - one that just about anyone can understand - to a wide audience. If the purpose of academic knowledge is to contribute to human knowledge, presumably for the greater good, then that research should be accessible to everyone.


    We live in a culture of information. Magazines, books television, radio, the Internet. Words, stories, essays, sound bites. As [scholars] we are in the business of producing much of that information. Explaining what we have learned to the public should be a natural part of our job." — Meredith E. Small "Owing a Written Explanation to the Widest Possible Audience," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 November 2000, B5.


Formal Writing Assignments and Presentations (in order of due date)

Case Histories: 15%
Genre and Style: 15%
Popular Science: 15%
Debates: 10% (individual presentation grade); 5% (collaborative grade)
Controversies Project: 20% (individual article grade); 5% (collaborative grade)

Informal Assignments

Question Formation: 10%
Class Presence: 5%

Informal Assignments

I use the term "informal" in referring to these assignments to note that your grade, in part, is determined by the number of assignments you complete. You will not have the opportunity to revise these assignments or turn them in late.

I will evaluate the Question Formation assignment according to the following criteria:

    • 5 Question Sets: A
    • 4 Question Sets: B
    • 3 Question Sets: C
    • 2 or fewer Question Sets: F

Class Presence

"Eighty percent of success is showing up." — Woody Allen

Woody Allen's words speak to a simple truth: A strong correlation exists between attending class (or anything else for that matter) and performing well. I expect and need you in class: I need your energy, your questions, and your insights. To that end, I will monitor your attendance. I will consider attendance and activities such as participation in class discussions and group coordination and cooperation as elements of the class presence grade.

Grading Criteria

A paper

The overall presentation shows a high level of understanding and perspective. Well-conceived and descriptive. A clear understanding of the audience. The work's purpose and objectives are clearly and convincingly stated. Concise background material clearly sets the context, frames, and introduces the subject. Themes are logically stated and organized and support the overall objective. Content is detailed and suggestive. Conclusions are persuasive and well-supported by the evidence. The prose is easy to read. Exhibits a defined sense of unity and purpose. Includes topic, paragraph, and sentence transitions, and contains no major and few minor grammatical or technical errors. Graphics, when used, are highly informative, well-designed, and easy to interpret.

A- Generally means you meet all criteria for an 'A' except presentation and problems with one or two criteria. Audience and purpose may be clear, for instance, but you failed to develop a central idea.

B paper

Paper presents content clearly and displays a firm grasp of the material but without as much focus and perspective as an 'A' paper. Successful effort is evident throughout the paper. Slight inconsistencies in identifying audience. The work's purpose and technical objectives may be somewhat ill-defined. Background material sets the context, frames, and introduces the subject. While well-written and adequately detailed, some sections may lack complete development and coherence. Unevenness in presentation and content. No major grammatical errors; some minor grammatical errors but none that disrupt an easy reading of the paper. Graphics are informative, intelligible and support the content of the paper.

B+ Exceeds the criteria for a 'B' in one or more areas. For example, the purpose of the paper may possess greater clarity. Audience is clearly identified and the contexts governing the explanation and interpretation of the information are well-detailed. Greater consistency in execution than a 'B'; better paragraph development and coherence among sentences for example.

B- A lack of connection among, for example, audience and purpose. A number of presentation errors affect the meaning of the sentences or structure of the text. A somewhat stronger relationship among the elements of the paper -- audience, purpose, content, style -- than a "C" paper. Still, the paper lacks full development of ideas and demonstrates some problems weaving together a complete understanding of the content with a clearly identified audience, purpose, and context.

C paper

Displays a reasonable grasp of the content but little original thought. The purpose of the work is inconsistently presented. The audience cannot be clearly identified. While understandable, the purpose and objective are not presented in relationship to the context set in the opening. Treatment of the topic is general. Lapses exist in coherence, organization, and development. Contains errors in developing and presenting content (inadequate, or wrongly understood, facts and arguments). The content marginally supports the conclusion. Some major grammatical errors and frequent minor grammatical errors. The paper is difficult to read and lack flow. Graphics do not support content objectives.

C+ Exceeds the criteria for a 'C' in one or more areas. Perhaps more imagination in thought and explanation. Greater consistency in determining audience, purpose and objective. Fewer errors in technical content and somewhat greater coherence in the presentation and the conclusion. Fewer grammatical and cosmetic errors. An easier read than the 'C' paper.

C- The elements of the paper — audience, purpose, content, style — are unclear and appear unrelated. For example, a wiki article about a weapons controversy may deal with a number of different systems in only a cursory way. No explanations are given about how the topics of the paper lead to one another. Presentation errors suggest no revision.

D (of any variety) or F paper

I will ask you revise 'D' or 'F' papers until you receive, minimally, a 'C-'. You have the choice of whether or not to revise. If you choose not to revise, you will receive a failing grade.

Revision Policy

You may revise any formal writing assignment as many times as you wish during the semester. I will average the grade on the revision(s) with the original grade. I will take revisions until the final week of the semester.


• Scott L. Montgomery. The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science. University Of Chicago Press, 2003. ISBN-10: 0226534847.
• Stuart Firestein. Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN-10: 0199828075.
• Rebecca Skloot, Floyd Skloot, Jesse Cohen (eds.) The Best American Science Writing 2011. Ecco, 2011. ISBN-10: 0062091247.
• Thomas A Easton (editor) Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Science, Technology, and Society. 10th edition. McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 2011. ISBN-10: 0078050278.


If you choose Option 2 of the Popular Science assignment, you may need to purchase a "Very Short Introduction" book.

Honor System

This course follows university policies pertaining to academic honesty and plagiarism. If you any have questions please ask me, or consult the Honor System web site.

Principles of Community

This course adheres to Virginia Tech's Principles of Community. If you have any questions, please ask me or consult the Principles of Community web site.

Science Writing