PREPARING STUDENTS FOR ACADEMIC WRITING BY USING STEM TOPICS AND TASKS
Heather Torrie, Purdue University Northwest, Hammond, Indian, USA
Teaser: While writing instructors of pre-college L2 learners often use liberal arts themes in order to stay within a context students find comfortable, STEM topics can provide authentic preparation for future coursework. This article describes several STEM-based writing tasks, which are both authentic and accessible to L2 learners.
Keywords: Writing, Academic, STEM
As educators, our primary purpose is to prepare students to succeed in the future by giving them tasks that represent what they will likely face. In teaching second language writing in an academic setting, one challenge instructors face is creating level- and content- appropriate writing assignments. On the one hand, authenticity is an important goal, as students need practice with the type of writing tasks they will see in their future coursework; on the other hand, topics must be accessible and either be dependent on prior background knowledge or provided with adequate scaffolding.
The writing curriculum of my intensive English program has undergone quite a bit of change in the past couple of years as my colleagues and I have tried to implement more authentic writing tasks and achieve the balance described above. Student learning outcomes at the intermediate and advanced levels centered on writing essays of standard rhetorical forms: compare/contrast, problem/solution, summary/response, and argumentative. We felt (and still feel) that these outcomes build the skills necessary for students to perform college writing. However, we used mainly liberal arts topics—communication, culture, education, and roles of technology, for example—because we felt they were accessible and did not present too much of a cognitive demand on students. Indeed, these topics were familiar to students and easy to write about.
From internal needs assessments, however, it was clear that many of our students were going on to majors in science, technology, math, and science (STEM), and needed more authentic tasks and topics. This led to an effort in our writing program to incorporate different types of tasks and a shift to more STEM-based topics. In this article, I outline and discuss some of these writing assignments I have used in my own classes.
Hands-on science activities with short-answer writing
In many cases, I simply wish to give students writing practice using STEM-related prompts, rather than requiring them to craft complete essays. I was drawn to activities from elementary school science classes because they were hands-on and engaging; they were also basic enough that they did not require sophisticated content background.
One activity was to make homemade flashlights. After reading some articles and reviewing diagrams of electric circuits and their components, I distributed to each pair of students an AA battery, small light bulb, copper wire, paperclips, and some cardboard and tape for mounting. After they all spent some time putting the flashlights together, each group had quite a unique-looking flashlight, some of which worked more successfully than others. Following the hands-on activity, I asked the students to write a short paragraph explaining how their flashlight worked. Sample language would include such sentences as:
First, the electricity flowed from the battery terminal into the contact on the end of the light bulb. The filament inside the bulb illuminates and emits light. The electricity flows out again and through the copper wire to the negative electrode on the battery. A switch on the wire can either break the circuit or let the electricity continue flowing.
Another activity involved growing bacteria cultures. I asked our department to order two sets of petri dishes pre-filled with agar. In groups, the students decided which surfaces to swab for their cultures. After an incubation period, the students observed their cultures to see how much the bacteria had grown and wrote answers to a series of short-answer questions about what happened, requiring the use of target vocabulary. For example, “Describe the procedure used for collecting bacteria,” and “How much did the bacteria replicate?” Key vocabulary included bacteria, exposure, surface, replicate, incubate, and other content words which we had learned previously in the course.
Process Writing Assignments
One of the rhetorical patterns in our textbook, which we had not previously used, was the process pattern. We had been focusing mainly on the summary/response and argument essays, which promotes critical thinking. However, I realized that the process essay might be more representative of some of the technical writing our students would be required to do in their STEM classes. For instance, the Senior Design course and other capstone projects usually require description of what happened or how something works. In developing the process-writing component, the main challenge was developing STEM-related prompts that did not require too much technical background information. Ultimately, the most successful prompts were those involving diagrams with basic text (key words or phrases), such as the water cycle and recycling of plastic, which I describe below.
For the water cycle prompt, students were given a diagram providing them with the most important vocabulary—precipitation, evaporation, runoff, water table, transpiration, and condensation (see Figure 1). From there, students were asked to expand their ideas on each step of the water cycle, giving examples and details. They also incorporated the transitions and signal words, as well as statistics from outside sources. Given the technical nature of these topics, students were inclined to take explanations and definitions from the Internet, and I had to stress the rules of citation in order to avoid plagiarism. Overall, the students did well with this assignment and seemed to enjoy a fresh topic (ecology) to write about.
Figure 1. Sample prompt given (Evans & Periman, 2013).
Next, as an in-class writing assignment, students wrote about how plastics are recycled, basing their essays on a three-step flow chart that provided them with some key points (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Sample prompt given.
In this case, the aim was to assess their description skills, not their knowledge of recycling. Although the goal was not necessarily to stimulate creative thinking, it was clear from their essays which students applied themselves to really build and develop their ideas and which students simply wrote about the basic points on the flowchart. In either case, this was a topic that students were able to write about without the need for extensive outside research or specialized background knowledge.
One of the purposes of delving into STEM writing in the first place was that one of the engineering professors at our university expressed general frustration at international students not being able to adequately write lab reports, in terms of both grammar and format. After reviewing authentic sample lab reports (which this professor had provided) together as a class, I led two brief activities to teach the basic components of a lab report—introduction, procedure, results, and conclusion.
The first activity, done together as a class, involved watching a short YouTube video of a man conducting an experiment to determine how much sugar is actually in a can of soda pop. Together, we wrote a short paragraph including the purpose statement, using an embedded question (e.g. “The purpose of this experiment was to determine how much sugar is in a can of soda.”), the materials used, the steps, and finally, the outcome. The second activity required students to write a few paragraphs based on a set of lab notes I had written up, reporting on a fictitious experiment to test the effectiveness of three types of hand-sanitizers. These notes included the research question, a list of materials, brief notes on the procedure, and the results, including photos of the bacteria growth in petri dishes. The students were then able to utilize the information from the notes and what they observed from the images to draw conclusions as to the most effective product. Together, these two smaller writing assignments worked well to provide my students with a more authentic context to describe a process and discuss the results. This work also provided the groundwork for them to conduct and write about their own hands-on lab.
Planning a lab for ESL students can be challenging due to constraints in facilities, equipment, and technical knowledge. Because I needed something for students to do in the classroom, I fell back on a previously studied topic: the absorbency of diapers. From experience, I knew that students always enjoyed the process of extracting the tiny granules from a diaper and watching them expand to absorb a large quantity of dyed water. This time, however, I wanted to expand the activity to compare three brands of diapers. I had the students, in pairs, take one diaper from each brand and first record qualitative data on each, including softness and elasticity. They also recorded the dimensions of the diapers and their cost. Then, they measured the absorbency by pouring dyed water onto each and recording the amount at saturation. This provided an engaging hands-on activity on which to base their papers.
In a multi-draft formal report, students included an introduction on the purpose of this experiment. The second section was a description of each diaper, based on their notes, and the third section described in detail—using the passive voice, where possible—the procedure used to measure the absorbency. Below is an example from one student, showing effective use of the passive voice:
Once the measurement and observation were taken, each edge of diaper were cut to extract its granules which is found on the padding of the diaper. After extracting the granules, they were poured into a plastic cup. Then, colored water, which is used to give better visibility in absorbency, was added until the material was saturated. Eventually, the capacity of the water that was observed was recorded.
Finally, the conclusion of their reports gave a recommendation of which brand was the best buy overall, based on the results of their experiment.
The activities above show that using STEM topics provide engaging and authentic writing practice and preparation for the types of writing many L2 students will see in their university coursework. It can be challenging to select topics that are that are basic enough not to need extensive preparation and or background knowledge, but I have found that using elementary science topics to be effective and also engaging to students. These topics naturally provide good opportunities to use the grammar structures learned in class, such as sentence combining, transitions, and the passive voice. STEM-based writing has been a refreshing change from our program’s once heavily laden liberal arts topics.
Heather Torrie is the Testing Coordinator in the English Language Program at Purdue University Northwest. She has been teaching academic writing for the past nine years.
Evans, J., & Periman, H. (2013). [Water-Cycle Diagram (English)]. Retrieved January 16, 2017, from https://water.usgs.gov/edu/watercycle.html