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May 2, 2005

Study highlights the importance of writing skills for science students

By Tim Stephens

A survey by a group of UCSC researchers on the role of writing in undergraduate education in the sciences has turned up some interesting findings, which the researchers hope will prompt a serious and imaginative discussion of the importance of writing in the science curriculum.

From interviews conducted with UCSC science faculty and students involved in senior research projects, the researchers found that both groups consider writing skills to be essential for success as a scientist. Yet explicit instruction in writing, including writing as a tool to help develop critical thinking, is mostly absent from the courses typically taken by science majors.

"Most students we interviewed said they learn to write about science by inference, and there is a real need for more explicit instruction in writing," said Nancy Cox-Konopelski, director of UCSC's Academic Excellence Program (ACE) and one of the principal investigators in the study.

"We are hoping that this study will help to open up a dialogue about how we can provide more opportunities for writing instruction to undergraduates in the sciences," she said.

Cox-Konopelski teamed up with Donald Smith, professor and chair of environmental toxicology, and Donald Rothman and Virginia Draper, both lecturers in the Writing Program, to conduct the study. It was funded by a grant from the Consortium for High Academic Performance. The researchers gave a panel presentation of their findings in March at the Conference on College Composition and Communication sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

The study was motivated by a concern that poor writing skills may be a barrier limiting the entry of students into independent research paths or limiting their ability to complete their senior thesis.

"My experience is that a lot of students who do research projects get hung up right at the end when they start writing their thesis. I've encountered students who never finished their thesis because they hit this barrier," Smith said.

Using a carefully constructed set of questions, the researchers conducted independent interviews with 22 students and nine faculty members in the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences. All of the students were seniors engaged in student research projects.

"Our hunch before we did the interviews was that the faculty would say writing is important, but not the students. In fact, everybody seems to recognize the importance of writing beyond just the need to communicate--they see it as a valuable tool for shaping their thinking and doing science," Smith said.

According to Rothman, many faculty recognize that writing can be a tool for developing critical thinking skills and that the process of writing forces one to think more clearly and creatively.

"I was impressed by the faculty who saw writing as a way of learning and talked about the intellectual skills that writing encourages," he said.

As one student put it, "The act of writing helped me understand what I was doing."

Both students and faculty agreed, however, that students need more guidance to develop their writing abilities. Faculty wish they could do more to teach writing, but they don't have the time and, more importantly, they are not sure how to do it, Rothman said.

"What's frustrating is that the campus has people who can help--we have a group of professional writing faculty on campus. We just need to figure out how to use the resources we have more effectively," Rothman said.

Currently, the faculty in UCSC's Writing Program teach mostly introductory writing courses for first-year students. When it comes time to write a senior thesis, however, many students find themselves on their own.

"The bottom line is we know we could do more just by having a coordinated effort to provide support and resources," Smith said. "Our study is a very preliminary assessment, but it gives us enough information to begin to understand what is working and what's not. This could serve as a starting point for addressing the need for more writing instruction linked to undergraduate research."

The researchers said they are eager to connect with other faculty on campus who are interested in this issue.

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