In 2005, a panel of academic and industry researchers in the fields of Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, and Information Science told students at Pitt and CMU that the single most important skill scientists needed to improve was writing.
Excellent writing and communication skills give science researchers the upper hand in their professional endeavors, perhaps more than their riches of scientific knowledge. Writing for the Sciences (WFS) was developed to teach students the conventions of written communication in the scientific disciplines and key strategies for effectively communicating science to expert and general audiences.
In WFS, students read a number of professional documents across the scientific disciplines, including abstracts, research article manuscripts, funding proposals, and correspondence. Students engage in this reading in order to identify common strategies for reaching an audience and understand the differences in writing across disciplines and why those differences matter.
Writing assignments include analyzing published research documents for their rhetorical strategies; writing abstracts for real-world research articles; composing a reproducible narrative set of methods based on a rudimentary list of tasks; and designing graphic representations of data accompanied by clear prose that represents complex technical information.
Students also spend a great deal of time working on individual projects including a literature review and a general audience article. Here are some examples from past terms:
- Last year, a pre-pharmacy student engaged in library research on the uses and effects of cannabidiol for the treatment of seizures, resulting in both a detailed synthesis of clinical and observational studies in this area as well as a science-driven guide for parents considering this option for their children with epilepsy.
- Another individual project led a junior Biology major to combine her own laboratory research on Salmonella bacteria with further reading of relevant literature to create a publication-ready review of the latest studies in the field. (This student used the assignment for her graduate school applications in Microbiology, and is now in a PhD program at Cornell.)
- An Engineering student conducted a survey of current strategies for measuring the likelihood of earthquakes based on terrain and historical prevalence, writing a review that evaluated the current state of the art for risk analysis and proposed a hybrid method, and then an article fit for lay readers of popular science magazines to understand the connection between risk analysis in civil engineering and the often unnoticed structural details in houses and office buildings.
This course invites students to explore the purposes and conventions of writing within the sciences. Students will read and analyze examples of professional scientific documents—including abstracts, literature reviews, research proposals, graduate school papers, journal articles, and correspondence. They will learn to craft scientific research into engaging written material, using information drawn from their own research or from publicly available studies. They will consider their audience’s needs and tailor their writing for both expert and general readers in different rhetorical contexts. Students will also learn strategies for document design, including how to effectively use visuals to represent data and findings. Throughout the course, students will learn how to write clear, powerful sentences and paragraphs. Finally, to develop their professional collaboration skills, students will practice providing each other with effective feedback on works-in-progress.