Science Writing Leaps Forward

For several years Sweetland has been working with subgroups of students from large-enrollment introductory chemistry and physics courses to make writing-to-learn pedagogies part of instruction. The goal of this work is to enhance student learning and increase retention in STEM courses. Last year we began using an automated peer review system where students submit essays, respond to those of others, and then revise based on the feedback they receive. We found that student evaluations parallel those of expert readers, and the automation feature makes it possible to incorporate writing into large courses where instructors would not be able to read several hundred papers.

A large grant from the National Science Foundation recently received by Ginger Shultz of the Chemistry Department and Anne Gere, Director of Sweetland, will make it possible for us to begin implementing writing-to-learn pedagogies in introductory biology, chemistry, physics, and statistics classes. This five-year project will enable us to work with colleagues from Duke University and the University of Minnesota, where similar implementations will be carried out. We will meet regularly with Duke and U of MN colleagues to discuss methods, share data, and learn from one another’s experiences. Our collaborative project will begin with surveying STEM faculty across the country to learn more about how writing is currently being incorporated into instruction.

Photo credit: Natalie Condon

In addition, Gere and Shultz have received a large grant from the University’s “Transforming Learning for A Third Century” initiative which will enable Sweetland to lay the groundwork for a sustainable program that integrates writing into multiple large-enrollment introductory courses in LSA and Engineering. We look forward to establishing a Writing Fellows Program, developing systematics ways of employing automated peer review, and using the technologies of natural language processing to provide instructors and students with useful information drawn from student writing.

Thanks to the intercessions of John Sweetland, the Center’s benefactor, we have also received a grant from Robert Day of the Keck Foundation to collaborate with the University of Southern California on using writing-to-learn pedagogies in organic chemistry. The goal here will be to develop and test the efficacy of these pedagogies in two different contexts to find out how variation in the specific curriculum as well as in instructors and students influences implementation of similar writing-to-learn pedagogies.

These opportunities to incorporate writing into a number of STEM courses are made more exciting by the fact that Larissa Sano has joined the Sweetland faculty. With her background as a scientist, Larissa will be very helpful in providing resources to faculty interested in including more writing in their classes, and she will also be able to work with students so that our Peer Writing Consultants can provide greater support to undergraduates in STEM courses.