Science, engineering and other STEM (science, engineering, technology and math) students often don’t realise the importance of writing well, as they believe writing skills are for the humanities or liberal arts majors.
Many education systems around the world tend to categorise students or place labels on them, based on their interests and talents.
There are even education ‘streams’ in certain countries where high school students are grouped based on these differences, such as ‘arts’ streams that teach accounting, economics and art, while ‘science’ stream students learn physics, chemistry and biology.
This leads to certain misconceptions, such as “students who are good at maths and science are not creative”, or “artistic people can paint well, but they can’t do maths”.
But you can be a painter and still interested in physics or finance. A scientist or engineer could be a brilliant musician. Humans are complex creatures and we have a mixture of talents, interests, tendencies and passions.
When society or schools place students in different boxes, it leads to students believing that they either can’t do something, don’t have to do something, or they won’t be good at something they perceive is different from their area of interest or study.
What matters to them most is the field of science they’re pursuing, the experiments, the research, the technical know-how, etc, often placing writing skills low on their list of priorities.
However, Anna Sajina, Associate Professor of Atrophysics at Tufts University, and Sergei Sazhin, Professor of Thermal Physics at the University of Brighton, emphasised the importance of writing skills for scientists and engineers in an article published on Times Higher Education.
Scientists need to express their studies and reports in a clear, sometimes concise, and interesting manner, and it takes good writing skills to do this.
After all, how will readers be able to read a report, find it engaging, and grasp the material if its not written well?
Sajina and Sazhin wrote that “teachers must guide science students in how to ‘tell a story’ in their reports”.
While some STEM programmes do incorporate subjects like Technical Writing, most science students tend to think that the writing involved in their chosen path consists only of writing up the results.
In reality, writing is a way to organise thoughts and is an integral part of the whole project, according to the article. A scientific or technical report is much more than simply a collection of figures with accompanying statements about how “I or we did this and this”.
Max Born, German-Jewish Physicist and Mathematician expressed this school of thought in 1968 when he wrote in his book, My Life & My Views:
“To present a scientific subject in an attractive and stimulating manner is an artistic task, similar to that of a novelist or even a dramatic writer. The same holds for writing textbooks.”
The report tells a story
Sajina and Sazhin have produced a paper in which they share with fellow lecturers and academics their experience of teaching science and engineering students basic writing skills, providing easy-to-follow guidelines for learners.
Firstly, teachers must emphasise that a report must tell a story, and students must first work out what that story is.
Although it can be overwhelming and challenging at first, teachers can help students by asking them to come up with some tentative answers to the following questions:
- What are the questions the report is trying to answer?
- What are the implications of this work compared to prior work?
- What is the evidence for the anticipated conclusions?
While students might know these answers, when they are asked to articulate them, they find that they may not understand them as well as they believed. The process of writing forces them to go back and carry out more analysis if they find they are unable to address these questions.
Sajina and Sazhin advise that students should repeat this process until they are able to better address these questions, as they may also find that their results lead to new questions or phenomena they were not aware of at the start of the project.
When students have a reasonable (though not final) answer to the questions, they should come up with a project outline which includes the names of expected sections and subsections, along with notes on what exactly they will try to convey in each section.
This is similar to an essay or story outline where the author sketches the story they expect to tell the reader, although the details of the story will likely evolve over time, during the process of re-writing, editing and re-editing. After the outline, students can prepare their first draft.
Sajina and Sazhin stress that these steps are just the beginning, and students should know that they are expected to make several revisions to their draft, no matter how experienced they are.
In fact, the more seasoned a writer they become, the more editing will be required as experienced writers think about every single sentence in order to precisely convey their meaning.
A communicative skill
In an article by The Atlantic, Kristin Sainani, a Health Policy Professor at Stanford University who teaches both undergraduate and online courses about writing in the sciences said, “Scientists need to know how to write to get their work published and get grants — it’s an important skill that people assume they already have [once they reach a certain level].”
However, she said that no one ever teaches them how to write well in these specific formats. “In science, research is king, and it’s important, but over the past decade universities have started to pay more attention to the “soft skills” that scientists also need.”
— Luella Allen-Waller (@symbioecology) February 11, 2019
An article by Forbes published last year also highlighted the importance of good writing in science, as for scientists, the story is one that usually only a few people in the world understand as fully and completely as them.
It stated, “Even within their own sub-field, they have an expertise and a perspective that pushes the frontiers of human knowledge. For those of us who are curious about the Universe, that cutting edge between the known and the unknown is the most exciting place to be. But getting that information out to the general public is where the trouble often arises.”
Often, the stories that scientists tell are either too complex or technical that only a few other experts can understand, or so oversimplified that they lead to new misunderstandings..
The article also argued that even though scientists can use a secondary source to make sense of the research and write the story, it’s like playing a game of scientific telephone.
It said, “The cumulative errors, going from the scientist to the press officer to the press release, mean that even the best science writers start out at a tremendous disadvantage, and that’s even discounting the knowledge gap. You’re likely to lose a whole lot of nuance, detail, and information if that’s where you get your information from.”
So science students should not tell themselves they aren’t good writers, but strive to improve and hone their writing skills so they can better articulate and express their research to a mass audience.
Teachers also play an important role to ensure they understand the importance of it and guide them to become better writers.