EBIO class turns students into scientists ready to communicate in the scientific world

Posters, literature reviews and research proposals are among a few of the scientific documents students learn to create over the course of the semester.

Monday, December 19, 2011

An EBIO science writing class is reminding students that posters are more than artwork: in science, they are the way information is shared.

Students quickly learn how important posters are when they are in charge of making their very own, a chance not many undergraduate students get at other institutions.

J. Harrison Carpenter, a senior instructor in the EBIO department at CU-Boulder, is the current course instructor for EBIO 3940 – Argument in Scientific Writing. After teaching the course for 12 years he has turned the poster assignment into something of a science.

Students begin the project with a literature search in the library to find papers they care about. But not just any paper will do.

“I tell students to choose the research most worthy of being represented on a poster,” Carpenter said. “Which article gives the most interesting, significant, telling results?”

The scientific papers typically range from four to 20 pages. Students have to decide what information to include on the poster and what information can be sacrificed for the sake of the design. The main text is edited for conciseness and re-written for both technical and general audiences. Students can include the authors’ original figures or can create their own if they find there is a better way to present the data for the poster.

Natasha Goss, a junior at CU-Boulder majoring in Chemistry, says she is working toward a doctorate degree and knows there will be many poster sessions in her future. Poster creation is rarely covered in traditional science classes so students, including Goss, often don’t realize how difficult designing a poster can be.

“It took a long time to pick the design, to make sure it flowed correctly and that it was edited to be concise,” Goss said.

“I have had students tell me that when they started out they thought it would take five minutes,” Carpenter said. “Then they thought, ‘Boy, this is really hard’.”

While other students may have the luxury of quoting from their article of choice, students who construct a poster based off their own research have to create original text. In recent years one student per semester, on average, has used his/her own research for the poster.

Junior Hayden Hedman, who completed his research on Glass Frog behavior in Costa Rica as part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates program, created his poster in the Fall 2011 class on his findings and was able to use the poster at a conference in October of 2011. His familiarity with the material he was writing on, however, didn’t make the project any easier.

“I thought it was really difficult because I did it on my own research,” Hedman said. “It was harder just because I took it to a whole different angle.”

“The bottom line is that it seems less complicated than it is,” Carpenter said. “In terms of the class I am glad to see that happen, you don’t want students to go into a class thinking, ‘This is a piece of cake’.”

From beginning to end the poster project takes about three weeks, is funded entirely by course fees and is worth 15% of a student’s overall grade.

This year 64 posters were shared during the poster display; the door to the lab was opened and all passers-by were welcomed in.

“The display session is a day for all the students to examine and compare each other’s posters,” Carpenter said. “They really get a kick out of comparing and contrasting the design and writing strategies.”

Instead of jumping from assignment to assignment, Carpenter’s teaching methodology focuses on creating an overarching framework for the course. The framework begins with students getting a handle on scientific communication conventions.

“They look into the literature in order to see what standards actually are,” Carpenter said. “This gives students a chance to see what the standards are that they will be called upon to fill”

The course projects start with the poster, a common visual communication device used to present scientific work. Focus for this project is on the design rather than the scientific content of the papers. The focus shifts when students have to complete both a literature review on the subject and submit a research proposal to fill knowledge gaps they identify in the field.

By having students hone their writing skills through a variety of interrelated prompts, Carpenter hopes to increase the level of communication in scientific fields.

“My view is that scientists are getting much more aware of the need to communicate as effectively, clearly and precisely as they can,” Carpenter said. “The biggest challenge is that communication is changing within the sciences. Scientists are always having to deal with new changes and they don’t really like that. They are scientists, they like to go with consistently precise methodologies.”

While the course does not count toward the EBIO major, it is an elective with the potential to prepare students for the aspects of science traditional classes don’t teach.

“It is enriching to take a writing course that relates to EBIO, even if it isn’t part of the major,” Hedman said. “It is more applicable to what I do in my field.”