I teach at a liberal arts college that has a focus on integrating writing into as many courses as possible and that does include intro science classes. The latter can be difficult, especially when I have 70 students and everything has to be graded by me in a timely fashion. But I understand how important it is, especially in the sciences, to encourage students to write more. There are some similarities between writing for humanities classes & the sciences (e.g. grammar, well-formulated thoughts, clarity of language), but there are also differences. In the sciences, there is a strong emphasis on data vs. interpretation, citations to indicate where the facts & information came from, and learning to distinguish between “questionable” and “reputable” sources.
Ok, so how do I do this with 70 intro students? Several years ago, I was cruising the internet looking at syllabi for other people’s Earthquake & Volcanoes classes. I was trying to determine what textbooks were being used, which topics had more or less emphasis, and any other special activities that were integrated into the course. And in this search I found a Middlebury assignment (can’t find the link to it now…), where the students were “journaling” several earthquake/volcano-related news stories a week. To me, it was a “yes, I have to use this” moment. The students would get to write something every week, they would have to learn to cite news sources, and they would have a better idea of what was going on geologically in real-time. Originally, I had the students find two stories per week. At that point in time I had 80 intro students and it was too much grading. This semester, I’ve cut back to one entry per week and expanded the topics to anything “geological” that is covered by 2+ public news sources, which is doable grading-wise. I’m on the fourth cycle of grading and I can already see an increase in their ability to write well, which is thrilling to me. They will also have a 2-page paper to write later in the semester, but I have hope that the whole process for that paper will be eased because of their continual writing during this semester.
But what do my students find to write about? I see some definite trends. The majority end up on one topic (e.g. New Zealand earthquake for the 1st cycle, miners trapped in Chile for the 2nd, local flooding for the 3rd), but a few search far & wide for stranger topics. In that latter group, I’ve seen articles that were discussed on twitter the week before in either the “yay!” or “fail” category, which is entertaining. There is also a small group that has discovered that there is an earthquake every week that produces enough news coverage for them to use (e.g. California, Afghanistan, Wyoming).
All in all, I may modify the assignment slightly over time, but I like how it integrates writing into science.