I feel that in a science class, understanding the concepts is the primary goal; however, scientific writing is also critical if one is be able to convey their thoughts in a defensible manner. In the world where plagiarism is rampant and software tools to verify that the student is not doing so, choosing a topic that enables them to understand what they are writing about is an attempt to deter plagiarism. I believe that plagiarism stems from not understanding a subject well enough to formulate an opinion and therefore, students feel the need to copy from some other source that can help them do so.
I have been involved in science for a good portion of my life and in my current career as a high school teacher of Chemistry, I find academic writing in this area very difficult for students. The difficulty lies in the fact that having to learn the concepts of Chemistry is hard enough without having to write a technical paper related to the subject. Many of the journals and scientific articles are in jargon that is well beyond the scope of most of the students’ ability to comprehend. If the writing assignment is for the student to convey the concepts learned in their own words, those words often turn out to be a juxtaposition of the textbook’s words or something from Internet. The dilemma is, just because it is science, does not mean that the students should compromise good writing for the sake of lack of translation of ideas.
How does one incorporate the importance of good writing and good research into one’s curriculum? The solution lies in the selection of a topic that is scientific and relatable to their everyday life but utilizes the concepts of Chemistry, in this case. Recently, I assigned a project that involved working on good writing and good research. The topic was Global Warming. I picked out the controversies involved in the movie “An Inconvenient Truth and assigned 9 groups of students to research the disputed statements that have come out of the film. However, realizing that today’s high school students do not utilize books as a research tool anymore, I began the lesson with a discussion on evaluating the reliability the information presented on the Internet. The lesson centered on the students need to verify the statements on web pages and to determine how valid is the information presented. This included tasks such as checking to see if the links worked, the reputation of the author, duplicate opinions, and the date of the most recent updates. Wikipedia was deemed to be unreliable as a result.
The writing task itself required that the students research the disputed statement and formulate an opinion as to the validity of the statement. They were first to summarize the meaning of the statement and that meant that they had to find a way to understand the question and explain the background behind it. Since the events were related to everyday life, (polar bears swimming farther to get to ice, islands being submerged) they were able to understand the situation readily. Next they had to have a discussion on the topic and decide on whether the statement was true or not. After the research, they had to write a paper conveying all this areas in a well written and logical manner. References had to be cited but since it was all Internet based, I allowed them to just use the actual web address.
Finally, before the paper was turned in, the class watched the actual movie and had an opportunity to change their opinion on an individual basis. Each student then had to write a paragraph, again well written and defended, on their final opinion.
The end result of this assignment was truly beneficial and the students learned skills that they will be able to utilize as they move to the college and business environments. They learned how to research and write about a scientific topic, and most importantly, formulate an opinion based on valid scientific research.