Scientific Communication Assignments

I’m teaching an introductory research methods course to freshman, where we introduce them to scientific research by having them work on a small project with faculty, post-docs, or graduate students. This is the fifth year of this seminar and we always have done some sort of weekly or bi-weekly writing assignments.  I decided to frame assignments in such a way that they will explore the communication side of scientific research.  I haven’t assigned the last two yet, so those are just outlines.

These assignments are identical in format, but the readings are different. The first is very positive, everyone can do research and can be a scientist. The second frames science as a product and the public ignorant and innocent consumers.

Writing Assignment 1: The Cosmic Perspective

Objectives: Activate prior astronomical knowledge while beginning to see how astronomers think, explore personal and societal motivations for studying science.

Purpose: This read and response assignment is designed to activate any prior knowledge of astronomy while exciting the student about the possibilities of astronomical research. The words jump off the page as Tyson puts into astronomy into a societal context. He also has lots of order of magnitude calculations in the background to show size scales. This introduces the student to how astronomers think on order of magnitude scales. The questions they are to address are the same in the second writing assignment. This will get the student to assess why they are interested in science while gathering perspective on why scientific research is important.

Online: http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/universe/161367/the-cosmic-perspective
Audience: Another college student
Grading Criteria: Informal, amount of thought/effort put into response. (We also have a discussion in class)
Models: This is the first assignment, there are no models, grading on style should be lenient.
Length: At least 500 words, no more than 1000.
Format: Informal, typed

Time: Four days (assigned on Wednesday due on the next Monday)

The handout:
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is a well-known astronomy communicator as the host of PBS Nova Science Now series and as the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He writes a monthly Universe Essay in Natural History Magazine. You will read and then write a 500 or so word reaction to the April 2007 column.
Directions:
Read a printed copy of The Cosmic Perspective with a pencil or pen nearby. Mark places in the text where the author touches on the following questions:
1.    What is the purpose of scientific research?
2.    How should the public view scientific research?
3.    What type of person does the author portray as a scientist; who does science?
After reading, summarize the author’s answers to the above questions, and discuss at least one instance each where you agree and where you disagree with the author’s answers.
Target your writing as if you were explaining your reaction to someone else in class. Don’t worry too much about style and editing, focus more on the content of your response than its presentation.
Bring the text you marked up to class on Monday and be prepared to discuss it (you don’t need to have finished writing by then).

Writing Assignment 2: The Sky is Falling

Objectives: Explore fear and other motivations used to popularize science.

Purpose: This writing assignment is designed to match the first writing assignment but increase its complexity. The Cosmic Perspective put science in a very positive light while The Sky is Falling is typical of a fear inducing science article that are readily found in popular press. Scientists are portrayed as mavericks or unwavering academics. Scientific facts and research outcomes are handed down to a public that is not expected to, or interested in, understanding the methods. It is important that the students express their own thoughts and opinions and work to convince each other what the differences are between this piece and Tyson’s. If everyone seems to be on the same page at the end of the discussion, a fun example of the fear inducing message can be read aloud if you have them take turns reading the last sentence of each paragraph of the introduction.
Online: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/asteroids
Audience: Another college student (to be written at about the same the article)
Grading Criteria: Informal, amount of thought/effort put into response.
Models: Feedback from the first assignment
Length: At least 500 words, no more than 1000.
Format: Informal, typed
Time: Seven days (it’s much longer)

The handout:

Gregg Easterbrook is a writer and journalist. This article was the June 2008 feature he wrote as a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His articles have appeared in several major metropolitan newspapers.
Directions:
Read a printed copy of The Sky is Falling with a pencil or pen nearby. Mark places in the text where the author touches on the following questions:
1.    What is the purpose of scientific research?
2.    How should the public view scientific research?
3.    What type of person does the author portray as a scientist; who does science?
After reading, summarize the author’s answers to the above questions, and discuss at least one instance each where you agree and where you disagree with the author’s views.
Target your writing as if you were explaining your reaction to someone else in class. Don’t worry too much about style and editing, focus more on the content of your response than its presentation.
Bring the text you marked up to class on Wednesday and be prepared to discuss it (you don’t need to have finished writing by then).

Writing Assignment 3: Understanding a Scientific Paper Discovery of a Candidate Inner Oort Cloud Planetoid

This is one of the discoveries that started Pluto on its course to no longer being considered a planet. In this paper, they describe how they discovered Sedna, an object larger than Pluto and more distant from the Sun. They explain how it orbits around the Sun and they hypothesize on how it got to be where it is, which puts Sedna in the context of our solar system.

I’ll be giving them a hand out on how to read a scientific paper, with a to do list to have them answer questions as they read it on their own, for example:

In the last paragraph of the introduction: The phrase “a distant eccentric orbit with the object currently near perihelion” says something about how close the object will ever get to the Sun. What does it say?

I’m also writing up a short glossary of technical terms that are hard to find in dictionaries, for example, “scattering” in this context is actually “gravitational scattering” but in these journals, the word “gravitational” is implied.

In class one week from when I assign it, they will work in groups to identify the major questions the paper is posing, and discuss their answers to the questions I posed to them.

Online: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2004ApJ…617..645B
Audience: Another college student (to be written at about the same the article)
Grading Criteria: Correctness of responses, and informal: effort in class and in final write up
Models: Feedback from the first assignment
Length: At least 500 words, no more than 1000.
Format: Informal, typed
Time: Seven days

Writing Assignment 4: Communicating Your Research

The final meeting of the class is a presentation that they will give in groups of two outlining the progress of their research. The week before they present they will write an elevator pitch, and 1-3 paragraphs each that explain their research to someone who doesn’t know any science, and eto someone who knows lots of astronomy. They also need to come up with three “sound bytes.” I’ll be following pp. 114 of “Don’t be Such a Scientist” when I write this one up.

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