A Behind the Scenes Look at PHY 451: Advanced Lab, Part 1

[This is the first in a series of posts about our efforts to improve the instruction in PHY 451: Advanced Lab. They are written by my collaborator Matthew Rossi who is an assistant professor of writing in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Culture. His research focuses on citizen science, writing consultation, multimodal writing, and maker culture. – JTS]

Since last summer Jaideep and I have been working on introducing a writing-intensive curriculum to the PHY 451 class, which satisfies a tier two writing requirement, MSU’s program for writing in the disciplines. Key to our approach is that the writing instruction needs to fit into the existing lab framework of the class, and that the writing needs to reflect authentic forms of writing found in the work of physicists. As we continue working on it this summer, we thought we’d post about our collaboration here as a record of our own learning and development process.

We began this summer with a workshop in Strategies and Tools for teaching writing Across Fields (h/t to the Writing Center who led this excellent STAF workshop). The workshop provided a language for talking about the assignments we need to develop and a few ways to evaluate the writing the students will do without distracting from the professors’ need to evaluate the science.

Since the workshop, Jaideep has built a pretty solid bibliography of readings for us to use as we think through the writing assignments. These readings fall into three categories:

  • Readings about writing pedagogy: for us to consult in framing our thoughts
    1. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom by J.C. Bean
    2. More Ways to Handle the Paper Load: On Paper and Online by J.N. Golub
    3. Building Bridges through Writing by T. G. Smith & A. D. Smith with Holly Hamby
    4. The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers by B. Ballenger
    5. The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines by K. Gottschalk & K. Hjortshoj
    6. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching by J. Lowman
    7. Writing Science by J. Schimel
    8. The Craft of Scientific Presentations by M. Alley
    9. The Craft of Editing by M. Alley
    10. The Craft of Scientific Writing by M. Alley
    11. Made to Stick by C. Heath & D. Heath
    12. They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by G. Graff & C. Birkenstein
    13. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by J. M. Williams and G. C. Colomb
  • Readings about science by scientists: to provide the students with good models for their writing.
    1. The Born-Einstein Letters
    2. Source Book in Physics by W. F. Magie
  • Readings that demonstrate how toask good questions in science and how to answer them: to help the students develop reflective thinking in their lab notes.
    1. Guesstimation: Solving the World’s Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin by L. Weinstein & J. A. Adam
    2. Guesstimation 2.0: Solving the Today’s Problems on the Back of a Napkin by L/ Weinstein
    3. Thinking Physics by L. C Epstein
    4. The Art of Insight in Science and Engineering: Mastering Complexity by S. Mahajan
    5. Street-Fighting Mathematics: The Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving by S. Mahajan

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In our first meeting of the year, we developed a few “low-stakes” writing assignments. In writing pedagogy, these are assignments that provide the students opportunities to practice writing without risk. The assignments are graded pass/fail, so students are free to write without worrying about how it affects their grade. It also has the added bonus of not increasing the professor’s workload significantly. Double win!

We created three possible low-stakes assignments:

  • Rewrite: Turn a piece of general interest science writing (such as XKCD’s What If? column) into the form of a formal scientific paper. The learning goal here is to think about how the intended audience of a paper changes the writing and to practice the form of scientific writing using a less formal approach.
  • Revise: students are given a timed writing assignment, are asked to reflect on what they might have written if they had more time, and then are given the opportunity to revise using the things they have talked about to flesh out the initial assignment. Our hope is that this will help students begin thinking about writing as a process, rather than as a one-and-done task.
  • Reduce: students reduce a 1000-word paper into a 500-word research plan, a 250-word abstract, a 50-word highlight, and a 25-word summary. The learning goal is for students to learn to reduce their own writing to the essential ideas. (Jaideep has dubbed this assignment the “Rossi Reduction;” I’ll take it!)

Finally, we also discussed using a peer-review program called Eli Review, which allows students to evaluate each others’ writing using an online survey, and then to create a revision plan based on their peer feedback.

Jaideep had the idea to ask students to turn in a weekly logbook summary, which would go to the professors and their peers. The professors would read this summary and give guidance on the science, while the peers would be asked to evaluate the writing using Eli Review. In doing this, we would want students to adopt a writing practice that followed four steps:

  • Read
  • Reflect
  • Revise
  • Repeat

Which more or less mimics the writing habits of academic writing.

Going forward, we’re hoping to develop some scaffolding from the low-stakes assignments into the higher stakes assignments, and to think about how this can all fit into the lesson plans for the labs.