Science Writing is Writing, Too

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By Paul Dickinson

Paul Dickinson and students in science class

Everyone knows that Catlin Gabel students do a lot of writing in English, history, and foreign language classes, but a considerable amount of writing is required in science classes, too. Just as there are different expectations and writing forms in English and history, we teach a particular form—the formal lab report—in science.

While intuition is a nice faculty to possess, it is not a basis on which to draw dependable conclusions. One of the primary goals of teaching the formal lab report is to help students who have relied heavily on intuition to develop a more logical, provable way of reasoning and to present that in writing.

We may ask students to carry out an experiment that already has a procedure to follow. We assign such experiments to make important concepts more understandable to students who would otherwise just read it in a text. Another kind of experiment is one that students design themselves. Both kinds of experiments require a clear, concise statement of purpose to show that they know exactly what they are looking for.

This purpose statement needs careful attention. Often we ask students to go back and reword the statement so that it is concise and accurate. Once the purpose is clearly worded, a student may come up with a hypothesis in which he or she will try to predict the outcome, backed always by logical reasons. Writing a purpose and hypothesis for a science experiment is similar to writing a thesis statement for a history paper. It must be accurately worded because the writer is about to gather together facts that will support a thesis or discredit it.

Another important part of experimentation is the background section of the report. Students bring in ideas, concepts, and equations learned in previous labs, class discussions, experiments, or life experiences that they will use in the current experiment. This section is, perhaps, the most difficult for freshmen. They are not yet used to the cumulative nature of their science work and are often used to studying for the test and then forgetting much of what they have learned. Time for reflection is not a common occurrence in our busy society, but this forced reflection reinforces the ideas they have learned. The more ideas they remember, the easier it is to write about the connections in their next background section.

Just as students might hear, “What is the evidence?” in a history class, they must report supporting evidence in science. We teach them to organize their data in a table to make it easier—for both writer and reader—to better comprehend and recognize patterns. Here students learn to decide if they have gathered data that answers their purpose and supports their hypothesis, or if significant errors make it impossible to draw conclusions, with a clear explanation of their calculations and reasoning.

At first these explanations must be good enough to satisfy their reader, the teacher, but eventually students internalize this process, and they can realize for themselves if they have made their point and supported it. This process often takes more than a year, especially if it is the teacher making the student work on it, and not just the student wanting to improve.

Finally, in a discussion we ask the students to look back at their purpose and think again about what they set out to prove. Then they summarize what they really found, after all the little glitches and errors, and conclude whether they accomplished their purpose, and whether their hypotheses were correct. We feel that students really learn to carry an orderly approach and thought process into all of their work in science because of the orderly and thoughtful way they are asked to write about it.

Upper School science teacher Paul Dickinson (“Mr. D”) has been a faculty member since 1969.