Adapting a Writing Assignment from Chemistry for an Undergraduate Research Program in NanoScience

Posted on November 2nd, 2015 by

Andre J. Gesquiere is an Associate Professor at University of Central Florida, where he holds a position in the NanoScience Technology Center, with joint appointments in the Department of Chemistry and The College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL). His research program is focused on nanomaterials for biophotonics and biosensing, and energy conversion materials and devices.

This summer, UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center and Materials Science and Engineering Program hosted a summer research experience for undergraduates (REU) as part of both programs’ research, education, and outreach efforts. The REU program was supported by the National Science Foundation. The undergraduate students who participated in the program came to UCF from colleges and universities across the country to participate in a ten-week lab internship.

Website screenshotThe goal of the program was to give these students firsthand experience of completing scientific research in a laboratory setting and to guide them in their career choices in STEM disciplines. The REU program is highly interdisciplinary, with faculty from physics, chemistry, materials science engineering and optics programs at UCF participating. This inter-disciplinarity exposed students to multiple examples of cutting edge research in a variety of related disciplines. The program also made the students more conscious of the additional tasks that come with research activities, such as the proper dissemination of scientific findings through publication in peer-reviewed venues. Both of these activities are often foreign to undergraduates. As part of our program, the students had to deliver a draft of a research article based on the work they completed during their internship. These drafts were to be developed further at the host labs here at UCF and submitted for publication at a later date.

Questions such as “How can we teach undergraduate students scientific writing and peer review in a ten week window?,” and “How can a complex topic such as scientific writing be presented to a diverse multidisciplinary group of researchers?”, have led to a very productive interaction between myself as director of the REU site and Writing Across the Curriculum Director Dr. Pavel Zemliansky. Scientific reading and writing are among the most challenging hurdles faced by novice researchers, as both of these skills are mostly acquired through long-term practice. Dr. Zemliansky alerted me to the work of the WAC Program, which formed the blueprint for our collaboration to address this topic with a group of novice students in a very short period of time.

To help us with this task we chose to explore existing materials that had been developed by other science faculty and the WAC Program and to adapt those existing to the needs of the REU program, which is focused on nanoscience and engineering. In particular, the Undergraduate Research Report assignment description developed by the faculty of the Chemistry Department under the guidance of the WAC Program, was a terrific working document to adapt to the needs of the students in our REU program. Despite the differences between STEM disciplines, the main organization of research articles and writing styles do have a lot in common, making the strategy of adapting existing writing instruction materials for use in related disciplines, worthwhile.

From these materials, with support from Dr. Zemliansky, who made two presentations to the students in the course of the project, we were able to develop a guide with a short list of bullet points and short paragraphs to discuss scientific writing with the students before they started working on the draft of their research articles. The guide and discussion was developed in such a way that took into account these undergraduate students’ lack of experience with scientific reading or writing. We used this document as a foundation to create a guide that identifies and emphasizes the most critical aspects of scientific writing, including writing conventions, clarity, and audience. This approach really helped the students to focus on key writing aspects, and thus appears to be beneficial for novice scientific writers. This was followed up by a peer review session, were students were divided in groups and peer reviewed each other’s drafts as a group. To assist the students with the peer review process, we also developed a guide to discuss peer review with the students before they started their session based on the aforementioned Undergraduate Research Report. In the peer review guide, we emphasized “global” considerations, such as purpose, audience, and others, to make sure the students didn’t get stuck on only critiquing grammar and other mechanics. The students then took the input from the peer review sessions and revised their drafts before submission.

My review of the drafts showed that the students benefited tremendously from the direct writing instruction, which we had provided. They were able to write a draft of a scientific paper that can be used by their host labs to complete the work, and eventually submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The students appeared to do particularly well in presenting their data in figures, structuring their drafts, and writing their text according to discipline specific conventions, which were points of emphasis for us. This is a significant step forward for a group of novices in scientific writing. The route of adapting existing materials of related but non-identical scientific disciplines has proven very productive for us, and holds promise to be extended to other disciplines also. The collaboration between REU and the WAC Program has made a significant impact on the success of our students and our program.

The photo included in this article was taken during the student poster display event at the end of the REU program.

Comments from the WAC Director

When Dr. Gesquiere contacted us asking for assistance with writing instruction for the REU participants, we saw it not only as an exciting opportunity to expand WAC efforts at UCF into more STEM disciplines, but also as a chance to apply the notion that faculty in related disciplines can learn about writing instruction from each other by taking existing writing assignments developed by their colleagues and adapting them to their own needs. As the article above states, the REU program used the Undergraduate Research Report assignment developed by faculty in the Department of Chemistry and adapted it to teach scientific writing to its own students. This example is an important step in the development of WAC work at UCF precisely because it demonstrates the possibility of successful peer-to-peer collaboration among faculty in the disciplines on writing instruction. It also validates the efforts of the WAC Fellows Program which is focused on developing discipline-specific writing outcomes and assignments. As the interest in writing across the curriculum on our campus grows, we expect these examples to become more numerous and wide-reaching as well.