The Plastic Brain


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Teaching Scientific Writing

Year after year, in school after school students are forced to write investigation reports based on a rigid format, often with very little understand of how and why this format was developed. Clearly they are meant as simplified simulacra of peer-reviewed, scientific articles. But there is a deep abyss between “prac reports” and real articles, which are the combined efforts of scientific teams,working for years, distilled into a dozen pages. How can we expect students to understand what they are doing, and why it is important when they can even read what they are trying to replicate? The program outlined below aims to address this problem by progressively constructing the concept of a scientific article from basic principles.

Step 1 – Histories and letters

Scientific writing did not start out with the formal structures we see today. Originally, verbal accounts were given by gentleman scholars at institutions such as the Royal Society. If they could not attend the meeting, a letter may be read in their absence. These letters have become the basis of the scientific article, indeed, publications in the prestigious journal Nature are still called letters.

I had long thought that getting students to write letters describing their experiments might be a good way to introduce them scientific writing. I was discussing this with a former research colleague, now turned award-winning science teacher (@SamMoyle1) who decided to enact my idea. Happy that someone would get my idea off the ground, we chatted, shared resources and off she went. My favourite resource is this letter from Isaac Newton (transcribed here), describing experiments with light (which we do in Yr 9 science). Not so much from the era of scientific letters, but Crick’s letter to his son on the discovery of DNA’s structure is also worth a mention.

When I met up her last week she said she had done it and it was successful. She had the students write a letter to their parents about an experiment. The task was titled “Dear Learned Colleague” and she sent me her task sheet:

Before the advent of email, Internet and phones etc., early scientists had to communicate their findings by written letter. They did not use the standard template for experiment write-ups as we use today (Sectioned by Hypothesis, Methods, Results, Discussion and Conclusion) but rather, as though they were talking to their friend or colleague explaining what they were doing, why, what happened and what their thoughts about it were. From this early form of correspondence between colleagues, the modern day science communication journal, ‘Science Letters’ evolved.

Next semester we plan to actually get our students to write and post (yes, snail mail) letters to each other. Our challenge will be to see if one group can replicate the other’s experiment. The aim here is to show why the formal and meticulous structure of the journal article was developed.

Step 2 – The evolution of journals

The modern format of the scientific article is a result of the professionalism of science. Scientific journal began being published in the 17th and 18th centuries, and really took off in the 19th.

 An impetus for expansion was the increasing interval between a paper’s reading to a learned society, and its publication in that society’s organ – up to five years later. Scitext

Along with the new format, came stylistic restrictions and formal referencing. It is important for students to see why these changes were important, and how they helped to improve the quality and reproducibility of scientific work. Wrapped up with this is the system of peer review, a unique feature of scientific publication. Though seemingly diabolical for authors, peer-review is one of the most robust systems of quality assurance developed.

Step 3 – (De)constructing an abstract

By now students should know what an article is, and why it has its many parts. But they are still a long way from having the skills to write one (or the shadow of one, such as we require in high school).

As is done in many English classrooms, before you can construct a text type, you should first deconstruct a text type. Before we tackle a full article, the abstract provides an accessible entry point for secondary students.

Take this abstract, for example:

Many plants in Australia have their seeds buried in order for the species to survive fires. The seeds start to germinate under the soil at certain temperatures. Seeds of Acacia terminalis and Dillwynia floribunda were examined in this experiment. It was hypothesised that the seeds need heat for the germination to start.Seeds of the two species were treated in hot and cold water and left to start germinating.Acacia terminalis showed a significant response in germination after the hot water treatment while Dillwynia floribunda did not. Neither seed showed a response in germination after cold water treatment. The results for Dillwynia floribunda were unexpected but may be explained by factors such as water temperature and the length of time the seeds remained in the heated water.

Which students should be able to break down into sections like this:

Many plants in Australia have their seeds buried in order for the species to survive fires. The seeds start to germinate under the soil at certain temperatures. Seeds of Acacia terminalis and Dillwynia floribunda were examined in this experiment. It was hypothesised that the seeds need heat for the germination to start.Seeds of the two species were treated in hot and cold water and left to start germinating.Acacia terminalis showed a significant response in germination after the hot water treatment while Dillwynia floribunda did not. Neither seed showed a response in germination after cold water treatment. The results for Dillwynia floribunda were unexpected but may be explained by factors such as water temperature and the length of time the seeds remained in the heated water. Background InformationOutline of what was investigated in this experiment
HypothesisSummary of MethodSummary of Results

Summary of Discussion

Once they understand abstracts, they could move from writing reports as a letter, to summarising they experiments as an abstract. Many sites, like this, offer tips in writing a good abstract, which I feel is much more manageable for students as they start their scientific writing journey.

Step 4 – Deconstructing an article

As I wrote at the start, students cannot be expected to read and understand peer-reviewed articles. But with the aid of a teacher, they should be able to read the headings, interpret the graphs and follow the flow of the argument.

Here, I would have students construct a hypothesis and evidence concept map of a simple paper. This would be based on drawing out claims from a paper’s abstract, and looking at which figures support those claims.

Step 5 – Writing an experimental report

Only after the preceding steps do I feel students would be ready to write a full experimental report. It is clear that it takes time to build through all of these steps. I would suggest for Year 9s it would take the whole year. However, I feel it is a worthwhile investment of time.

Australian Curriculum

I would be negligent of me not to mention the new Australian Curriculum at this point.

Take a look at the Year 9 Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills (which account for two thirds of the year’s content). Surely the program outlined above goes a long way to putting that content on equal footing to the Scientific Understanding content which currently dominates most syllabi.

Finally, let us not forget this:

8-Year-Olds Publish Scientific Bee Study

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jtotheizzoe:

The United States – 17th in Science, 25th in Math!  But remember when we put those dudes on the moon?  That was awesome.

Something must be done.

World education rankings: which country does best at reading, maths and science?

Glad to see old Australia doing well – still, there’s always room for improvement!

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