Composing Science: A Facilitator's Guide to Writing in the Science Classroom
reviewed by Calvin S. Kalman - January 22, 2018
Title: Composing Science: A Facilitator's Guide to Writing in the Science Classroom
Author(s): Leslie Atkins Elliott, Kim Jaxon, & Irene Salter
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775806X, Pages: 176, Year: 2016
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In the introduction to Composing Science, the authors state that this book is written for science faculty who are asked to teach writing in their courses, but arent sure why or how to do so. I would argue that this book does that and more, and that the authors are much too modest about the books utility. Long ago I read Joan Countrymans book on writing to learn mathematics (Countryman, 1992), which is still very much in demand today. Her book profoundly influenced me, and I feel that Composing Science can be equally beneficial to most teachers of mathematics, science, and engineering.
A central idea in the book is that writing can allow students to gain a much more profound understanding of science concepts. In his forward, Tom Fox notes that the authors argue that science is motivated by, deeply engaged in, and captivated by uncertainty and that students wrestle with using writing to grapple with puzzling observations, incongruous theories, and competing explanations (p. 1). Indeed, the authors competently show how this can be done. They note that focusing on informal writing in the classroom may be a stronger approach to engaging students in scientific writing. In the classroom exercises they describe, structures are adopted that scientists use, including posting work online and having journal club discussions. For example, by sharing comments on assigned texts using programs like Google Docs, students are able to engage more deeply with concepts through informal writing.
Part One is fittingly titled Writing to Learn. Here and elsewhere in the book are many suggestions for ways to incorporate writing into the science classroom, such as having students examine pages from scientists notebooks and create a rubric based on their observations to which they can hold themselves accountable. Another useful practice described in Chapter Four is having students critique each others work. The authors explain that although they engage in peer review professionally, it can be difficult to support in class because students are uncomfortable providing critical feedback. However, when done successfully, it gives students an audience for their ideas. Teresa Larkin has shown how this sort of practice can be used to great effect in asking students to prepare and present a research paper for an end of semester conference (Kalman, 2007/2017). In this model, all students papers are subjected to a formal review process, typically from a faculty member and a student. This is in line with the authors goal in Composing Science to advocate for science writing in classrooms that emulates the work being done in scientific communities.
Countryman, J. (1992). Writing to Learn Mathematics: Strategies that Work, K-12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Kalman, C. S. (2007/2017). Successful Science and Engineering Teaching in Colleges and Universities (2nd ed.). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.