Rethinking the way science is taught

The Office of Science Education is enhancing undergraduate science education with targeted writing exercises aimed at building students’ ability to develop and convey their ideas

The Office of Science Education (OSE) was established in 2018 to promote innovative, evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning in McGill’s Faculty of Science. One of the OSE’s first projects focused on a skill not traditionally at the forefront of science education: writing.

It could be a scene from a movie; sometimes it even happens in real life – a great idea hastily scribbled down on a napkin goes on to change the world of science, economics or entertainment. But what if those napkins of legend were something more than an ephemeral record of a flash of genius? Could the spontaneous act of writing be an indispensable step in turning a creative spark into a fully formed idea?

A learning community takes shape

A group of McGill scholars has been diving into questions like these in an effort to enhance undergraduate science education with targeted writing exercises aimed at building students’ ability to develop their ideas and convey them to others.

“Oftentimes in academia, we ask students to write as a way for them to report on what they’ve learned, but we don’t ask them to write to develop their thinking,” says Marcy Slapcoff, a teaching and learning professional who was instrumental in establishing the Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) learning community.

Formed in 2018, the learning community brought together four faculty members and a master’s student from McGill’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences along with staff from the McGill Writing Centre, the McGill Library, and Teaching and Learning Services. At regular meetings, members have exchanged ideas and developed new ways to integrate writing into undergraduate science courses.

Writing with a purpose

From one of these meetings, EPS professor Natalya Gomez took the idea of using spontaneous writing as a teaching tool and tried it out on her class, Geodynamics (EPSC 510), the very next day. In her version of the so-called ‘ink shedding’ exercise, Gomez asked her students to write down, unrehearsed, a few quick ideas in response to the question, ‘What makes a good scientific presentation?’ After swapping notes and discussing what they had jotted down, the students came up with a collective set of responses that Gomez says was “better than anything I could have come up with myself.”

When it comes to writing tasks that are more formal in nature, Gomez says the learning community experience has led her to think more carefully about her students’ perspective when she is setting assignments: “We say, ‘Write a literature review’, but we could be much more specific. What is a literature review? Who’s going to read it? What’s the scope? What’s the point of it?” she says.

Slapcoff sums up this deliberate approach to writing by saying: “The best writing has an audience and a purpose. We want students to identify that in what they’re reading and then to try and start writing things that have an audience and a purpose.”

Science is still science

At the same time, Slapcoff is quick to emphasize that, for the EPS learning community, building better writing skills is not an end in itself. The skills and knowledge students are expected to master in the courses taught by learning community members remain wholly within the earth and planetary sciences domain.

“The most important thing is figuring out what the faculty want the students to learn during the class,” Slapcoff says.

“Then we look at those learning outcomes and figure out how writing can support them. If professors want their students to develop their quantitative skills; if they want them to develop a view of how the different earth systems interact; if they want them to understand taxonomies – whatever it is, the question we ask is: ‘How can writing support that?’”

Mastering new tools

Anna Hayden, who was an EPS master’s student when she joined the learning community, says she appreciated the opportunity to learn more about different approaches to writing. The APOS framework, a structured approach to writing taught at the McGill Writing Centre, is one example of a strategy Hayden took away from the learning community and something she did not know about when she was an undergraduate majoring in earth and planetary sciences at McGill.

“Often it seems as if writing is the end result and you don’t really get to practise that skill throughout classes that are primarily focused on numerical experiments, or simulations, or looking at rocks,” Hayden says.

Communicating science to the wider world

While scientific fundamentals remain essential to undergraduate science education, Slapcoff notes that the ability to communicate science to a non-specialist audience is emerging as a learning outcome in itself.

“It’s becoming clear that this is more of an urgent need,” she says. “The public needs to better understand science.”

Aiming to develop her students’ ability to communicate earth and planetary sciences to an audience from outside the discipline, Gomez has been working with Diane Dechief from the McGill Writing Centre to create a blog-writing assignment for her upper-year earth system science course, Earth System Applications (ESYS 500). Collaborating on the same, semester-long research project, Gomez’s students will give frequent updates as they investigate seasonality and climate change in the Saint Lawrence River Basin, with blog posts that describe both the process of conducting the research and their research findings in jargon-free language.

Meanwhile, Gomez’s colleague Peter Douglas has his class, Isotopes in Earth and Environmental Science (EPSC 519), trying their hand at another form of science communication with an assignment modelled on the News & Views articles published in the journal, Nature. Gomez herself has had good results with a similar assignment in the past, having adapted the idea from an assignment created by McGill pharmacology professors Bastien Castagner and Jean-François Trempe.

Drawing on expertise from across the campus

This kind of exchange of ideas and teaching strategies across departmental boundaries is at the heart of the Office of Science Education’s mission. Established in 2018 with Slapcoff as its director, the OSE takes an inquiry-guided approach in bringing together diverse expertise from across the McGill campus to tackle specific pedagogical questions.

“It really does start with interesting questions that come from the departments and from the faculty members themselves,” Slapcoff explains.

“From there, we think about who we can bring together to start answering those questions. I don’t have all the answers but I know that if we bring the right people together – in this case, someone from Teaching and Learning Services, someone from our office, the Writing Centre, the Library, and EPS faculty members and students – and work together over time, we can start addressing these questions.”

Coordinated access to resources like the Writing Centre and the Library was something Anna Hayden particularly appreciated about the EPS learning community. Hayden, who is now working towards a Ph.D. at the University of Waterloo, thinks greater awareness of those resources would be of direct benefit to undergraduate students.

“I think McGill has all of the resources that a student really needs to be able to improve their writing, but it’s just the visibility of those resources that needs to be improved,” she says.

Taking the long view

Gomez says working with three of her fellow professors in the learning community – all at different stages of their career – has been an opportunity to take a long-range view of how students’ writing skills develop as they move through an undergraduate program.

“We each teach our courses and while we might know that this person is going to cover geochemistry and I’m going to cover earthquakes, I think we learned a lot about how writing is actually taught in the curriculum, which was not really formally known before,” she says.

“I think we still have a lot to learn from the rest of the department about how these skills develop over the course of the four years that our students are here.”