Technical Writing in Science Class: The Handbook

T. R. Girill
trgirill@acm.org
Technical Literacy Project
December, 2012 (ver. 6)

Introduction

"Every science and engineering lesson is
in part a language lesson..."
U.S. National Academy of Sciences,
Framework for K-12 Science Education, August, 2011, p. 3-20,
http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13165

Goals

Effective communication is a key part of success in scientific research, and it is vital for successful science applications in engineering, medicine, and forensics. That is why the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in their K-12 Framework insists that "every science and engineering lesson is in part a language lesson" (see reference above). It is also why the Common Core State Standards, now being implemented in 46 of 50 U.S. states, bring very specific technical reading and writing expectations into K-12 classrooms across the whole curriculum.

This online handbook responds to these demands that science students develop effective communication skills. It offers a focused approach, along with classroom-tested, award-winning exercises and activities, for teaching nonfiction (technical) writing well.

Scope

This handbook summarizes the background and tools that you need to effectively teach technical writing to high-school science students. It features:

Part 1 below explains the many ways in which technical writing is relevant to high-school science classes. It clarifies key terms and distinctions, summarizes the empirical research applied here, and introduces the project's basic pedagogical approach. Part 2 (the classroom resources on writing instructions and descriptions) contains the heart of the student material. Here are the specific activities and cases that we have tried and revised over this project's career, each annotated with usage suggestions for teachers (and links to the explanatory background where appropriate). Part 3 extends and overtly applies our basic techniques and insights to the important communication tasks that science students are already undertaking in most classes (abstracts, notes, talks, posters). This completes the circle of authenticity, since these classroom writing efforts are also just the ones that scientists and engineers produce in professional life.


Part 1:
Explanatory Background
Part 2:
Teaching Resources
Part 3:
Extensions and Applications
Terminology, Instruction Guidelines  
Distinctions, Instruction cases,  
Research: <-- exercises and,  
   student activities  
Technical writing Description Guidelines Technical talks
Text usability Description cases, Note taking
Cognitive apprenticeship <-- exercises and, --> Technical abstracts
ESL and CSI issues student activities Science posters

Project History

The content for this handbook grew out of a community service project. The underlying teaching techniques and student activities discussed here have emerged from a literacy outreach effort in several San Francisco bay area high schools that has been jointly sponsored since 1999 by the East Bay Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and by the Computation Directorate of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

This on-going Technical Literacy Project sought to improve the basic (nonfiction) writing skills of underperforming high-school students by adapting real-world science instructions and descriptions into skill-building classroom activities. Later, to expand the project's reach, we added teacher-training workshops hosted by the Edward Teller Education Center (ETEC, part of the University of California Davis School of Education). In 2007, a one-time grant to LLNL from the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science afforded the chance to organize both the student learning materials and the teacher support effort into a four-day professional development "academy" (under the Academies Creating Teacher Scientists program). Annual revisions and extensions followed. This effort has now twice received a Pacesetter Award for program quality from the Society for Technical Communication.

Part 1:
Background Topics

Technical Writing Explained

This chapter introduces writing's place in science, and hence in science classes. A comparative tour of the "universe of text" shows you and your students just how technical writing overlaps with yet differs importantly from other written communication familiar in school and in life. This overview thus provides a good mental model of technical writing's benefits as well as its learnability.

School Standards That Support Technical Writing

This chapter spells out the official support for building technical literacy now found (1) in high-level education-policy initiatives (such as the Natural Science Education Standards), (2) in mid-level benchmarks for policy implementation (such as those of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), and (3) in the California state content standards for specific grade levels from elementary through high school, as well as the newer Common Core State Standards.

Usability: How Technical Writing Succeeds

This chapter explains why readers judge technical text just as they rate tools, appliances, or computer software, by its effectiveness, efficiency, and "user" satisfaction. A brief history of such text usability connects it both to its engineering roots and to its skill-building value for struggling student writers. Also introduced here are the three empirical features that make science text usable: ease of understanding, ease of access, and reader relevance.

The Cognitive Apprenticeship Teaching Strategy

By "revealing the magic" needed to design effective (usable) science prose (through such proven teaching techniques as externalization, scaffolding, iterative refinement, and connecting to life beyond school), cognitive apprenticeship builds writing skills in science class in the same reliable way that traditional apprenticeship builds trade skills. This chapter also summarizes several classroom successes that used this approach and links it to several nationwide school-improvement efforts.

How Technical Communication Helps ESL Science Students

English learners often have academic language problems that undermine their performance in science classes. This chapter reveals how overt technical writing practice addresses their special needs and helps ESL students develop their cognitive maturity, their ability to use appropriate text signals and science idioms, and the quality of their note taking.

CSI as a Window Onto Technical Writing

This chapter points out that since good communication is crucial for real-life success in forensic science and crime scene investigation, many classroom technical writing techniques map directly onto CSI career demands for adequate notes, talks, and reports. Students often find this CSI connection motivating.

Teacher Review Exercises and Activities

This is a short self-evaluation chapter for teachers (not for high-school students) pursuing formal professional development. To help quickly get a sense for how all this material fits into the world of high-school science, you can try the (one) general "self-exploration" exercise and (one or two) focused activities (that could even be graded or get e-mail feedback) listed here for each handbook chapter above. (Specific classroom-tested instructional cases for students come in the handbook's Part 2.)

Elaborative Notes

Specific topical notes elaborating this approach to technical writing in high school (and often citing new research) appear each month in Edutopia's STEM discussion forum, in the National Science Teachers Association online "learning center," and in Yahoo's High School Science Teacher e-mail group. Selected notes from that series, reused for teacher professional development, are also posted here for convenient reference.

Part 2:
Technical Writing Resources for High School

These two chapters contain high-school-level, classroom-tested, skill-building exercises that teach how to write good instructions and good descriptions through a coordinated sequence of worked and scaffolded examples and student activities. Each set of exercises has its own explanatory introduction and comparative reference chart to highlight educational features and roles. Also included are annotated, overt instruction- and description-writing guidelines (student checklists) on which these exercises depend. This chart (also repeated in each resource chapter) shows the general lesson geography:

Technical Writing Activities for High School
Instructions Descriptions
Overt guidelines Overt guidelines
Detect weaknesses facing users Draft and revise (scaffolded) Rebuild a description from its parts
In text (kitchen recipes) In graphics (artist tips) On a larger scale (home repair) Draft instructions from trial run Draft illustrated instructions Role recognition (household objects) Rebuilding (large parts, shorter text) Rebuilding (small parts, longer text) Revising wisely (heads, figures)

 

Part 3:
Extensions and Applications

More Applications

The basic text-design principles itemized in this project's description-writing guidelines and practiced in its focused exercises also apply to several other common school communication activities with real-life analogs:

Our core exercises aim to gradually develop basic technical writing skills, foundational skills that all high-school students should have. The applications listed above assume those basic skills and then add others (some visual, some verbal). These situations also add more demanding constraints that call for applying one's skills with greater complexity and sophistication. And science class is often where students encounter these greater communication demands.

For example, underperforming science students are often limited by their poor note-taking or weak technical presentation skills. Such literacy limits then thwart adequate work in class science projects (or adequate communication with peers and teachers about science topics or problems). Integrating usability-based note-taking or talk-giving lessons into science class can thus directly build prerequisite science-enabling skills that make more technical work possible. ESL science students find these communication challenges even greater and hence they stand to gain even more from overt attention to these needs.

Extended Cases

This handbook's Extensions and Applications chapter introduces the role of these extended cases in the science classroom and as preparation for life beyond school. It explains the importance of engineering constraints to teaching and learning these cases. And it ends with a comparative chart showing the application materials currently available (also summarized here).
  Plain
(for
students)
Annotated
(teacher
notes)
     

Giving technical talks

talktips analysis

Taking notes effectively

notetips analysis

(FS/CSI illustrated version)

plain6dfs  

Drafting effective abstracts

template analysis

Comparing web sites (by audience)

general annotated8d

Preparing a report (FS/CSI version)

reportfs