Friday, April 19, 2013

Comparison of Five Science Writing Course Syllabi

By Zhengzheng Zhang

As a professional M.A. student with an emphasis on science communication, science writing is definitely one of my most favorite and necessary course. Thus, here I’d like to compare five science writing courses syllabi, including (1) the one taught in Fall, 2010 by Prof. Carolyn Johnsen at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which I have chosen as my selective course in 2009 as a physics Ph.D. student; (2) the one taught in Spring, 2013 by Prof. Sharon Dunwoody at UW-Madison, which is also what I take in this semester (3) “Science writing for media” course syllabus taught in Fall, 2010 by Prof. Bruce Lewenstein at Cornell University; (4) the one taught by Prof. Tom Yulsman in University of Colorado; (5) the one taught by Prof. James Collier in Fall, 2012 at Virginia Tech. You may find the links to these syllabus at the end of the blog.

All of the five syllabi share several common things. Except for the general elements that are normally shown in a syllabus, such as the information of instructors, office hours, textbook recommendation, school and class policy etc, I also find the similarities in other aspects: the first one is the general design of the course content. Since it is a science writing course, reading, intensive writing and in-class discussion and critique are the key components in these syllabi. Almost all of the five syllabi spend large portions talking about the specific requirements and assignments for these key components, which show that instructors have similar criteria and values when it comes to what kind of skills a science writing class should give to students. The second aspect is the writing load. In all of the five syllabi, writing load will take approximately 70-80%. Although instructors may design what specifically students need to write differently, the overall load are quite similar. The third is, the grading criteria have the similar evaluation factors. For example, all of them take whether a story is able to reach the publication level as one of the key judgement especially as “A” papers. The last but not least is all these universities put a high value on class discussion and group critiques. They pay attentions to students’ oral communication and collaborative work, and all put text reading after class, which is a little similar to filpped classroom teaching.

Their differences are very specific. For example, the goal and structure of the course. Although their goals are in a similar direction in a general sense, which is to teach the skills a student needs as a science journalist, each has their particular focuses. For instance, the syllabus of UNL focus on general writing skills, but the professor does not limit science topics. For the stories, the assumed readers are mostly general audiences but students from science background are also trained in writing for expert. While the goal of UW-Madison science writing mainly focus on the journalistic skills of writing, the professor emphasizes on teaching students how to explain things, storytelling skills using words and images, how to make reasonable judgments about evidence and how to ponder and present issues of evidence, which is a very professional “writing” class. And the assumed story readers are general audiences.

Different from the above two syllabi, the syllabi in Cornell University, University of Colorado and Virginia Tech do not that concentrate on “writing”-though their emphasis is still writing-but all of the three more or less include the social context into science writing, professors in the three universities design discussions, debates or invited speakers speech in their classes talking about the how science journalism interact with the society. Also science writing in UC tend to focus on environmental reporting (specific topic in science writing) and pay attention to practical skills, such as field trips and talking to scientists. This outside classroom part is different from all the other four universities, which take more traditional seminar class style.

Among all the five universities, Virginia Tech’s syllabus is quite distinct from others. The writing style tend to be more in a humanized tone, the professor seems to try to explain every “why” behind each of his requirements and the goal of this course. Also, the writing topics are not only natural science, but also include social sciences. The required writing assignments are not like normal science brief or science features in the other four syllabi, but instead, students are trained to learn how to write abstracts, research proposals and journal articles, which make me feel it seems more like technical writing. But the syllabus notes students are trained for general audiences. The course is also designed to train students reflect the science popularization and the role of science in public communication and debate, which for me, sound more like combining science communication conceptual course and a writing skill course. Not superisingly, the structure of this syllabus is quite different from the other four, which can be found in grading criteria, the professor counts the knowledge of science communication and science populization into the grading portions.

The differences in the goal and structure in each syllabus actually have shown the different purpose of teaching in instructors’ mind. Questions like “what kind of things students need to learn from this class?”, “who are my students?”“what do we want them to obtain in this class?”, or “what should a science writing course bring to my students, to their future career?” all influence how instructors would design his/her course. Comparison of these syllabi help me realize the factors behind them.

Syllabus links:
Virginia Tech:

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