Writing in Biology Jin Kelley
Introduction In 10th grade, I remember my biology teacher explaining the mitochondria’s purpose within a cell. And just like the many times before in Mr. Socketts lectures, no one in the class understood what he was saying. Our blank eyes met his frustrated look and he proceeded to turn on a two minute animated clip explaining that same process in a more “simplified” manner. After the clip’s completion, the majority of the class understood the concept: The mitochondria act as a source of energy for the cell to function much like an engine to a car, which was displayed in the video. However, upon entry to college I was expected to read more complex texts and understand significantly more difficult topics in one lecture or one read through, but this time I did not get the cute animated clip about the inner workings of a car to explain it. I had to fend for myself by building strategies and habits to help me be more successful in the class. Fending for myself was difficult. I had no real methods to go off and the process of “trial and error,” which occurred for over three months, had led me to mediocre reading comprehension and subpar writing responses when the instructor called for it. I was not looking for ways and means of understanding in the correct places. And as much as it has assisted me in the past, Wikipedia could not teach me to be a literate student in the field of biology. So, I looked for guidance elsewhere. In high school, biology seemed very two-dimensional. Just masses of facts to memorize was the illusion I carried for a long time. When exposed to writings about writing in the major specifically, another dimension of comprehension and discussion rose from my studies. Although facts are important in biology, being able to understand and provide personal thoughts and research about the subject major took precedence.
Writing in this field is vital to the sharing of information and the advancement of subject. Without it, science, not excluding biology, would stand still. As you continue through this book, you will come across existing literature and thoughts about the writing within this discipline. The thoughts of those authors in addition to mine, will reflect experiences that you will go through during your academic career as a college student. I will then take you through an investigation about types of writing genres and their purpose within the field. Then, students like you will give their concerns and insights about writing in biology and Iâ€™ll address common findings throughout my research to solve problems within the writing curriculum in biology. This book covers the many bases that will help you become a scientifically literate student with the skill to be a successful writer in the major of biology.
Chapter 1: Literature Review No matter what occupation you take in life, there is the guarantee that your job will require you to write and read. Whether you writing out tickets to fast cars on the highway, or writing mathematical theory essays for a magazine, you are writing with purpose in your particular field of study or work. Writing, although a universal chore in all fields, is not the same. Each major and occupation have different rules, patterns, and expectations when it comes to writing. Take for example, a speeding ticket. When you are late for work, you speed in order to compensate for time, however you get pulled over by a police who goes through the process of writing you out a ticket. But what makes it a speeding ticket apart from any piece of paper? The ticket is the accumulation of multiple thing, like a formula. The compilation of your name, your speed, and your fine equal the speeding ticket. Within other fields the same concepts apply. They may not be the same procedure across all the disciplines but each field has its own standards of good and correct writing. Regardless of your major, the unique formulas shared across the discipline lead to success and universal understanding within the field through writing. The conversation within the biological sciences is considered to be one of the most difficult fields to write in due to the strict formula and the demands to present a professional tone. When it comes to being student, you are expected to communicate your ideas through writing (or speaking) demonstrating scientfic literacy while following the rules of the discipline (Balgopa and Wallace par. 1). But, how do you become a scientifically literate student? It is easy to be professional and follow guidelines, but becoming scientifically literate is more difficult. The best way to become a literate
student in biology is to be aware of current literature and be aware of strategies that will improve reading comprehension of scientific texts. Having a stronger understanding of current texts lead to improvements in student produced writings. A biology major must understand straight away that scientific texts have the purpose of conveying information opposed to general writing which is meant partly to entertain (Kinsley p. 17; Hailman and Strier p. 168-169). The most common form of communication among scientists are written reports or scientific papers (“Effective Scientific Writing” par. 3). Like other writings, written reports have a formula that the scientific community expects the author to follow. Each written report contains, in part, a title, a list or authors, an abstract, an introduction, a materials and methods section, a result, a discussion, and a references list (Knisely p. 18; “Effective Scientific Writing” par. 11). Typically the author uses this format to convey four basic things: 1). what they did 2.) Why they did it 3). What they found 4). And what they think it all means (“Effective Scientific Writing” par. 4). According to Karin Knisely, a molecular and cellular biology lab coordinator at Bucknell University, in order to understand written reports, such as journal articles, it is wise to follow the general strategies for reading scientific texts. First look at the abstract, then the introduction, etc. The emphasis Knisely and many other authors have stem from structure and format of scientific texts. With this format, finding particular information within the text is efficient and allows smooth communication among scientists. As a student, knowing where to look allows research to be systematically absorbed and provides easy access to information for personal research in the future.
When it comes to writing, you, the author must be able to think consciously of your audience. When the main purpose of any scientific paper is to communicate information effectively, you should establish credibility first. Most scientific papers are written in a standard format with proper grammar and punctuation. Any deviation from tradition is considered to be a sign of lack of credibility. It demonstrates to your audience that you understand the procedures and will present your research and findings in a traditional format and tone. In addition it should be concise and the tone should reflect a factual and objective atmosphere (Knisely p. 17 -18). Take the abstract for example, you, as the author, should clearly convey the main point of the paper in order to help your audience (Myers p.53). Clarity, of course, is not only relevant in the abstract of your written report but in the rest of the paper as well. As Meena Balgopa and Allison Wallace discuss, the author should provide their information in â€œa context of critical thinking and synthesis (putting concepts and findings together.â€? Critical thinking is defined by them as the fusing of data, theory and logic to produce an intelligent opinion about a scientific undertaking. Scientific communication requires accuracy, no ambiguity, and logical organization to be operational. One should eliminate irrelevant information and be as simplistic when possible and appropriate (Balgopa and Wallace par. 5-8). Below is the first two sentences from the abstract of the article Remodelling Chromatin to Shape Development of Plantsâ€? by Matthew Gentry and Lars Hennig: Establishment and dynamic regulation of a higher order chromatin structure is an essential component of development. Chromatin remodeling complexes such as the SWI2/SNF2 family of ATP-dependent chromatin remodelers can alter
chromatin architecture by changing nucleosome positioning or substituting histones with histone variants. Figure 1. Observe how jargon is used within the abstract. The audience for this paper is highly advanced compared to college level expectations. College students are not advised to use specialized language in scientific papers or lab reports during their classes, because more often than not, the audience of college student works are other college students. However, not everything can be simplified to lamest terms, and that is fine. Just clarify less familiar things as unfamiliar vocabulary, and concepts that may have not been covered universally in class (Knisely p. 53). Simplifying is not just good at the beginning of a career in biology, but later, regardless if you are much more advanced or even considered an expert biologist. Keep in mind, science is a worldwide advancement and many people who do not have English as their first language will be reading written reports as well (Hailman and Strier p. 168). Another thing authors such as Jack Hailman and Karin Knisely will stress is that as a universal form of communication, there are numerous courtesies that readers of scientific texts expect. Take a look at figure 2 below. Two recent stories in particular attracted public attention: the potential danger pollen from Bt corn plants poses to monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) (Figure 1) and other nontarget insects, and the recall of processed foods containing a type of Bt corn not approved for human consumption (Palevitz, Lewis, and Latourelle par. 8). Figure 2.
Notice the text after “monarch butterflies.” The authors puts the species’ Latin name in parenthesis. Most biologist use this format and when you are writing about living things such as plants and animal, include their scientific name. Using the Latin names allows universal communication between languages. In addition, the author inserts a caption following the scientific name to refer to a picture within the text. Since biological research if often quantitative, referencing graphs, pictures, charts and/or tables within the text, it helps the reader understand the research and clarify when visual aids within the text should be looked at. However, use caution when using graphs, pictures, etc. because they can often be redundant and not further your paper. They should only be used to reveal trends within the research (“Writing in Biology” par. 2). Biology is not an easy field on its own, and it is no surprise the writing in it follows suit. The writing within the field of biology such as lab reports function highly due to its structure and format. The highly strict format and professional tone allow communication to be easy and as concise as possible. In the next chapter, I will discuss more types of writing in the field and discuss their purpose and structure in biology and how it will assist you, as a student, through your academic career. As you continue through this book, it will lay out expectations of the field and provide valuable information that can lead you to success as a biology major.
Chapter 2: Writing Genres of Biology Biology is a demanding and strict field when it comes to writing. More often than not, students are overwhelmed with the mass confusion of conveying information in the correct way. When asked to produce certain assignments to the instructor, students are disappointed by their grade after the fact. When attending the University of Denver, a future biologist is expected to read, write, and speak in an informative and professional manner. The classes at DU jump into practical writing situations that students will encounter in the field. However, students at DU are not yet comfortable in their understanding of different types of writing to know when to use them. Studying genre within biology will help students accurately present information in class and in their professional career. When I used the word â€œgenreâ€? previously, what probably came to mind was books or movies. Iâ€™ll most certainly agree that romance is a book genre, and horror is a movie genre. However, with that previous understanding, students often think that microbiology and anatomy are genres in biology writing. Do not make that mistake. Genre theory in the field of biology discusses the purpose and guidelines for the different styles of writing, not branches in which you write about. Where a horror movie and a romance novel differ with their own organizational styles and purposes, so does a biology class syllabus and a written report. A biologist is expected to not only be an expert in their field but convey their thoughts, ideas, or discoveries in the most efficient medium. A biologist is useless if he or she cannot include themselves within the predominant conversations of science. Understanding genre will help students grasp their expectations within their college
experience, but also will aid in the creations of personal works and studies beyond the degree. Throughout this chapter, I will analyze particular genres that students will come across throughout their academics and future careers. Some are obvious and others are more abstract, but in the end, I hope the reader gains insight about genre theory and utilizes this information in their professional life. In the college years, your biology professors will throw syllabi and rubrics at you. Where you will often reference assignment rubrics, the course syllabus is often discarded immediately or lost among the stacks of paper on your desk. The course syllabus contains a myriad of information and useful tips that should be utilized during the course of your semester. No matter what course, syllabi have the same general information: information about the instructor, time schedules, contact information, and a course description. Then there is an outline of sections or topics of study. Take a look at this excerpt from a DU 3130 Molecular Evolution class syllabus:
Week 4: The Genome’s history and evolution. Read handouts & answer questions on back Week 5: Midterm – Look at Materials from weeks 1-4 Lab Friday Figure 1
Figure 1. shows the topic outline for the fourth week in the quarter. For that week, the class will heavily discuss the genome’s history and its evolutionary process. In addition, it tells the student to read the handouts provided in order to make lessons more clear. The most important thing to note from this example is the organizational style. First, the information is separated by weeks in the quarter. In each week, the topic is given
followed by materials and assignments. This style allows the students to not only have a calendar of topics and potential exam dates at their exposal, but to be aware of assigned readings and projects if specified. In chapter one, I heavily discuss the strict formats of written (lab reports). Written reports are documents supporting a theory or hypothesis with quantitative and qualitative data. In college, written reports focus on personal lab work. As I mentioned before, professors are throwing rubrics at you in order to make their expectations clear. The outline for a lab report is often straightforward. Lab report guidelines list the sections the student is to cover along with a description of that section. Remember the organization of a written report from chapter one: title, introduction, materials/procedures, results/analysis, discussion/conclusion, and citation. Written lab reports are the most popular method for biologist to convey their findings to the academic community. When doing lab reports through your academic career those guidelines carry on past college into personal work. Read through this excerpt from a class lab report rubric from BIO 3130: Introduction:
Presents a clear summary of the aims of the study and its significance. Briefly describes experimental layout. Probably includes one or more references to supporting sources.
This is the description for an â€œA-levelâ€? grade on the introduction section of the lab report. The organization, like the syllabus, makes criteria easy to follow. When you read the criteria, you can see that the instructor wants clarity and strong explanations. In addition the professor would like you to use outside sources for support, a trait of most written lab reports used in the professional field.
Another genre you will certainly come across during your studies is a biology textbook. Although a pricy, 1000-page book does not sound appealing, it is an excellent resource for learning because it was specifically written for a college biology student. It simplifies information in order to help students grasp major concepts. It includes charts, graphs, and diagrams to help visualize notions to make understanding biology easier. The helpful thing about textbooks, is that each section is set up like a course lesson. At the beginning of a chapter, the book lays out its goals for the chapter and a mini glossary, similar to a syllabus, which makes navigating easier. Then, as you read through the chapter, note key concepts and vocabulary which books take the liberty to bold, underline, or highlight. At the end, the chapter lists reference which you, the student, can use to do further researching. In this textbook example, notice the simplistic writing style and the easy-to-follow organization. Cells are structural units that make up plants and animals; also, there are many single celled organisms. What all living cells have in common is that they are small 'sacks' composed mostly of water. The 'sacks' are made from a phospholipid bilayer membrane. This membrane is semipermeable (allowing some things to pass in or out of the cell while blocking others). There exist other methods of transport across this membrane that we will get into later.
Figure 3 (Cell Biology).
The first thing you should be weary is the underlined text. The book has done the work for you, pointing out key terms. Make a connection to the word “phospholipid bilayer,” and when it is defined later in the text, include that information in your notes or other study aids. Also in this excerpt, you can see the phrase “semi-permeable” explained within the parenthesis to ensure complete understanding.
Textbooks are essential study tools in biology courses. College professors will often ask you to do the questions listed at the end of the chapter in order to measure your grasp of the material. And if your professors do not require you to do the question, feel free to do so regardless. The questions ask about key concepts in the chapter and will prepare you for in-class discussion and other worksheets. For the amount of work put into them and the hurt it puts on your wallet, it would be a waste to not fully utilize text books as a resource. As you continue through your studies, writing is inevitable. It can be a lab report which we have covered, or you can be asked to write in an innovative way. Since the internet is a part of everyday life, biologist have turned to more mainstream ways of communication. Instructors are exploiting these assets as well, allowing students to be less formal and explore topics and concepts over requirements and formats. Take for instance the blog genre. Blogs have been around almost as long as the internet. A blogs purpose in the modern world is to express personal insights about a subject. Where blogs are mostly used as public diaries for some people, biologists are using them to provide findings and create discussions among other biologists. Although, there are professional scientific blogs in existence, I want to analyze a student blog, The Student Blog of Plos Blogs, in particular. This blog allows current students to post their own findings on unique hypotheses. On the site (referenced in the works cited) you can see posts ranging from “That Homeostat’s Got Rhythm!” to “Beakers, Ballplayers, and Failures.” The wide range of topics allow student to express interests and obtain feedback about their studies.
In an article by Katie Fleeman titled, “Communicating Science Through Hip Hop,” she interviewed Ethan Perlstein, the creator of the video called, “Evo Pharma Remix,” a rap about the cells of the human body (“The Student Blog”). Traditionally, when you want to publish a study or scientific research, format and tradition dictate. However, blogs allows the posting of an interview without a formal introduction or heavy set of facts cited and well supported with data. It is simple there to insight a discussion and create future studies which can be quantified and observed. In Jonathan Jou’s post titled, “Nature’s Batman Utility Belt: The Genome,” he creates his own analogy comparing the human genome to Batman’s utility belt. However, this is where we must diverge from Batman. His utility belt may be all-purpose for him, but Mother Nature takes that concept a step further. This code, this natural utility belt, is replicated with striking similarity across all living organisms! They all function with a similar premise: From DNA to RNA to protein; manual to instruction to tool. Figure 4 (The Student Blog)
The choice to use of the Batman analogy suggests the author’s intentions of having a younger and unprofessional audience. With that, Jou’s voice tends to be more conversational like the other blog posts on this site. The site in general allows college student to communicate thoughts and interests over a universal medium. Students are often limited by location. Internet integration among students allows feedback from many different places around the world. That connection provides new insights and perspectives. Although your professor may ask you to post specific things about a particular lesson, understand that you have more academic freedom to express your finding and thoughts as opposed to a concrete written lab report.
Quite the contrary to a student blog post, the final genre I will analyze is a professional magazine publications. Unlike the last two genres, scientific magazine articles are very formal and professional. Highly regarded science magazines have strict policies when it comes to publishing articles or essays. First, they want professionals. Credible magazines want to maintain credibility by having well known authors and biologists within their pages. What makes these “celebrity” biologist and authors credible and appealing is their consistency to produce interesting studies. In addition, they follow written guidelines while being interesting. They convey information not like textbooks or blogs, but in a strict setting. Take a look at this introduction paragraph from Discover magazine (figure 5.). The article is titled, “First Ever ‘Designer Chromosome’ Built from Scratch.” It is written by Breanna Drexler, who wrote over 200 articles for Discover. In a significant step forward for synthetic biology, researchers have built a synthetic yeast chromosome—the first ever from a eukaryotic cell. This could help geneticists better understand how genomes work and stretch the existing limits of synthetic biology to make novel medications, more efficient biofuels and perhaps even better beer. Figure 5 (Drexler par. 1)
Drexler does not waste time in this introduction spoon feeding information. She is writing for an audience that is presumed to have an understanding of the subject already. Professional writing always assumes some literacy on the subject matter where a textbooks, rubrics, and teaching aids assume little to no scientific literacy. Society in itself has become a visually stimulated culture. Mediums such as video games, YouTube.com, and social networking have become the forefront of communication. It is beginning to look as if the sciences are doing the same. Using
social networking and entertainment media to spark interest and discussion is more common now than ever before. Take for instance YouTube. Although YouTube is filled with music videos and animal shenanigans, more and more reputable and credible people in the scientific community are spreading knowledge through online videos. Channel such as Veritasium and Numberphile aim to inform general topics and research about chemistry and mathematics respectively. How much longer until a riveting channel about biology comes along? My guess is that it is not too far off. In addition, several online universities use YouTube videos in order to help students visualize concepts in the course. Although scientific communication may steer towards the new technological genre, it is certain the written reports, textbooks (which are often available as eBooks), and syllabi are unlikely to change structure and purpose. Knowing the different types of genres is important. Not only will it make writing easier, but finding information as well. Many students dismiss documents such as syllabi and rubrics because they feel they are not useless often useless and not direct information. But as I have discussed, syllabi and rubrics are a great resource for studying and the creation of works. Likewise, that expensive textbook may be worth more than just an extra ten pounds on your shoulders. Textbooks are great for narrowing in on key points. Finally, we took a look at student produced work and professional publication. We can see the difference between the two by language and style. Upon closer examination we can see structured similarities and the overall theme of joining the conversation among the scientific community. All genres of writing have a purpose in the field, and understanding that purpose allows students like you to be and effective writer in the discipline.
Chapter Three: Two Inside Perspectives So far, you have gained knowledge on a few writing genres in biology such as lab reports and class syllabi. Having that knowledge already is an advantage when first starting out your college career towards a degree in biology. But, having those notions and guidelines laid out is not enough to mentally prepare you for the long journey ahead. If you are still confused about writing in biology, it is always a good idea to talk to people who have gone through it or are currently going through it. Living with two biology majors, they have expressed concerns to me about their struggles. Often, they comment on how other students seem to “breeze” through the class, and they often feel behind. Knowing many other students feeling the exact same way, providing personal insights from upper level student will not only give advice to freshman biology students but also allow them to recognize that they are not alone in their struggles. I sat down with two students in order to interview them on their experience in the biology department at DU. My first interview was with Robin Jones, a junior year biology major. And not too long after, I spoke to Charlie Steadman, a senior former biology major. Throughout my two interviews, I wanted to connect the required writings of the class to professional expectations. I asked both of them the same questions, and although they differ in their choice to remain with the program, both Robin and Charlie shared similar interpretation about the writing in the field and how it is dictated by professional standards. The first thing I asked Robin and Charlie was, “What types of writing are you exposed to?” Robin replied rather quickly, “Exactly what most people assume.” Robin was referring to lab reports and scientific articles. When I asked about writings other
than the lab reports, Robin recalls a few obscure assignments from her teachers. One such assignment was to mix different liquids in a cup and write observations over a twenty-minute period. “It was strange to hear my professor ask me to stir oils together, but when I was writing my observations, I understood what the assignment was for,” she said. “What was it for?” I replied. “I’m fairly certain it was to help prepare us for labs. Lab reports tend to ask us to write down observations during reactions and high points [of the experiment]. Charlie said, “I remember reading long reports from actual biologists. Then the class was asked to write a brief summary of the writer’s intentions. What was his/her hypothesis? What methods did they use to prove it? Things like that.” Charlie said very similar things, but discussed lab report in depth. “We had a lab every week, which I’m not saying wasn’t fun, but the work for the lab reports was ridiculous.” I asked him to go more in depth. Charlie continued, “The assignment were laid out clearly, but when I went to write it I would get confused. Mostly on the intro and conclusion sections of the lab. And my grades were never good compared to the four hours I put into each one.” After asking about the genres they were exposed to, I wanted to go into the mechanics of writing. I asked Robin first who she believed her primary audience was for her assignments such as her observation of mixed oils. She said, “The teacher. I don’t know who else would read it?” When I asked her about lab reports she became hesitant. Robin tossed in numerous suggestions like “the class” or “my future self.” However she did not seem to have a definite answer. When I asked Charlie the same question, he did not hesitate. For both class assignments, he believed the teacher to be the audience. His rational on his answer
was very intriguing. “I’ve always been told that I should be writing labs for other students to read and interpret, but the teacher is the only who looks at it. Plus, when the professor grades it, [they] often take off points for casual language. They want it to be “proper” but they want someone like me to read it.” Audience is often a difficult concept to grasp in every subject and each of its genres. Scientific studies are not emotionally supported or personal. They are after the quantitative results from a manipulated scenario (an experiment). When throwing in heavy-weighed literature terms, it is easy to see where students find confusion. After an in depth discussion about the audience both Robin and Charlie agree that when it comes to audience it most often varies when you are in college. When you write labs in class, they are for the teacher and your fellow classmates. However, the language and format follow practical standards in biology and can be used to speak to a wider audience in the scientific community. Therefore, when writing to an academic audience of other biologists, the writing must be professional. What any class breaks down to is understanding your professor and his or her expectations. I asked Robin and Charlie about the expectations of their written reports. In other words, the criteria for the labs. Words like, “neat,” “organized,” “accurate,” and “professional” were used. Think back to previous chapters and start to make connections. College biology reports attempt to mimic those in the work field. Professional work is neat, easy to follow, but well supported and relevant. The professor’s expectation is to turn you into intelligent individuals that can properly express their thoughts and ideas among the scientific community. Professors often lay
out those expectations in syllabi and grading rubrics. (Take note from chapter two’s genre theory.) Read expectations and goals and apply those to your assignment. “Through your experience thus far,” I said, “what would you say ‘good’ writing in this field looks like?” I gave them a minute to think about it. Robin said, “Most good writing [in biology] is clean and easy to follow. Take a lab for example. A lab follows a format that most biologist are aware of. Also, it is not overly wordy and complex but gets the main point across to whoever is reading it.” I quickly followed up, “Is that idea of good writing for lab reports the same for other assignments?” “Mostly. I wouldn’t say that answering book questions has the same criteria as a lab, but we have to write in complete sentences. So, you could consider that a “format” of sorts.” In regards to the look of ‘good’ writing, Charlie said similarly, “Good writing [in biology] is organized and well documented.” What he meant about “well documented” was a reference to data and additional resources. He went on to say that when integrating sources, the paper needs to be carefully written in order to utilize data tables effectively. They both agreed upon this assumed standard within the field and a celebration on organization within scientific texts. When each of interviews were reaching their ends I gave Robin and Charlie a minute to express any additional thoughts they had about writing within the field of biology. Robin said, “Writing labs and reports is very different from other writings I have done. Creative writing papers and essays for French class do not follow the same format. In biology you always have a format to turn to that [...] works, where in other subjects that guarantee is not there.”
“When I write for my current major [environmental science],” Charlie responded, “I found my support and data to be more qualitative than quantitative which biology texts are. Although the writing I do now follows similar rules to writing in biology, I find it rather cool that scientific [theories and hypotheses] can be supported by different types of data, yet both be credible at the same time.” What I find the most interesting is that both students mention differences with other types of writing. It is and underlining theme I found through each interview that scientific writing if very different and unique to other disciplines. In addition, the two of them, regardless that Charlie dropped his Biology major, write similarly in their respective specialization. As a junior biology major, Robin Jones advices good time management. She stresses that the best way to be a good writer is to reach for perfection the first time. One reason being is that not all your professors allow revising or editing of papers and labs. Another is that if there is mistakes, they are more likely to be quick changed. For even if your professor allows revision and editing, there may be too much changing within that process that the paper loses its initial meaning. Charlie Steadman, recommends biology major to be truly dedicated. “The field is difficult enough. It will only be worse if you are not at least having fun.” In addition he recommends good sleep pattern and to seek out help right away. Last minute fixes do not help. In this chapter, I provided insights from college students going through the struggles all biology majors will face. Many common themes have risen from these conversations and give a general sense of first hand expectations within the field. First,
labs and written reports are a common occurrences in this major. So, be prepared to do them. Second, the strange assignments your teachers and professors have you do serve a purpose. Take them seriously. Third, your audience is the scientific community in general. In college, your primary source of feedback is the professor, but remember that your professor is a part of the scientific community. His or her expectation for you is no different from those in the professional realm. Fourth, a good text is well organized, professional, and well supported. Overall, writing biology texts is difficult. Seek help as soon as possible and put in the extra effort. It will prove beneficial in the long run, not just in your biology course this semester, but in your professional career beyond your graduation.
Chapter 4: Proposing Change
Living with biology majors now, I am constantly over hearing conversations about the difficulty of doing work in biology. “It is too difficult.” I cannot disagree with their point of view. In fact, many college students at DU agree that it is one of the hardest fields offered. Since biology covers a vast range of topics with many complex concepts, the proposed solution from many students is that biological formulas of writing (and reading) should be “dumbed down” in order to make it manageable to college students. In other words, the system of writing (and reading) in biology is broken. However, the system has worked for many centuries. The problem is not with the current system, but with the student’s preparation for college writing. The major problem with “dumbing down” written works in biology is that once it achieves that accessible status, virtually anyone can voice their view points and findings. Corrupted information can easily be circulated and no credibility would exist among authors. Furthermore, the prestige of a doctorate in biology is meaningless when publishing works and studies to share with the scientific community. If anyone can imitate “scientific” writing, the question begs the necessity of educational success. Therefore, other options are more preferable. As a freshman biology major, you are expected to read complex text and write strongly about research in the field. Professors have high expectations of scientific literacy and high expectations of the writing. However, many freshman students believe that they are playing “catch-up” and are immediately behind in the first semester of school. Robin Jones, the third year biology student I interviewed in chapter 3 states, “When I was given my first [biology] assignment, I had no idea what I was doing. The
rubric was unclear and I spent so much time trying to figure out how to write my paper compared to actually writing the paper. And my grade wasn’t that great.” This issue is easily fixed. The best solution I can offer in order to make college students more biologically literate is to offer a literacy class first semester. No freshman student that attended a public high walks into class already able to write literate and professional lab reports or research papers. It takes understanding. Since high schools do not offer intense biology classes, The University of Denver’s biology program would benefit by requiring a biology writing and reading course. This course, would strive to make students more literate in the field by focusing on strategies of reading and writing biological texts. Assignments would include reading current works and examining structure and format in order to provide templates for the students to emulate. Then after examination require research papers on a particular subject focusing on structure and the professional style. In addition the class can cover strategies for writing other genres of writing such as lab reports, and provide strategies for reading different genres like class syllabuses and rubrics in order to elevate confusion among assignments. Some would argue that including a literacy course first semester would leave DU students behind in the course curriculum. I will agree that a lot of information is covered during a semester of biology, and the threat of “falling” behind compared to other universities is a real possibility. However, I can offer two methods that can make the literacy course 1.) Beneficial and 2.) Manageable with four-year time constraints. The first proposal is to “beef-up” the course goals of the first year biology courses. What I mean is that due to the benefits of the literacy course, students will no longer have to spend time trying to figure out “how to do assignments” and can focus on concepts over
structure. This can allow professors to introduce information and concepts more frequently. The other proposal is to offer a â€œsplitâ€? first semester. The DU computer science program does this very well. For first semester, computer science majors are offered the option of two introductory courses. One is for students with little to no computer programming background (COMP 1671) and the other for students with previous experience (COMP 1771). Both classes offer the same material. The difference is that COMP 1671 explains concepts from scratch and COMP 1771 is a more challenging honors course with brief overviews of lessons and tougher assignments. When second semester comes, the two classes join together in COMP 1672, and all students have the necessary background to continue. This same strategy can be applied to first semester biology courses as well. This set-up and be beneficial overall because students that have had access to specialized courses and programs can utilize their skills in an honors class, where students that take the regular introductory course do not fall behind. This solution to low academic literacy among freshman biology students is fairly adoptable by DU. The curriculum is constantly changing not just in biology, but in other fields as well. The integration of a literacy course would remove many studentâ€™s confusion and lead to higher understanding overall. Not to mention higher grades. Other solutions do exist. One option is to offer summer workshops for incoming students. However, summer workshops have low interest rates and placing programs would cost the school money and faculty time. Another option, is to boost AP high school courses. Although this may seem a plausible solution, changing the academic curriculum of
multiple high schools is easier said than done. When the problem is among DU students, the solution should be offered through DU itself. Therefore, an additional introductory course is the best option. The benefits of a first year literacy course are numerous. It can help students be on point with curriculum requirements and remove confusion among assignments. In addition, it can allow the obtaining concepts and information to be smoother and faster, leaving time to explore more complex ideas on subjects or time to introduce new ones. DU currently does not have a literacy course for biology. However, if you (as a freshman biology student) feel overwhelmed and scattering to catch up on requirements, talk to your professors. The professors at DU hold a lot of power when it comes to presenting information required for courses. Although they cannot choose the goals of the course, they can change the way the information is presented and what should be focused on. Odds are, that the professors feel that overall performances could be improved. Any strategies to increase overall understanding will gladly be heard by instructors. If the weakness of freshman biology students is lack of literacy of writing and reading, propose changes that focus on those ideas. With movements to increase literacy in writing, future DU biology students will have an easier integration into the department with successful writing.
Chapter 5: Conclusion
The field of biology is one of the most consistent fields and majors when it comes to writing. The overall formula to be a successful scientific writer has been relatively equal among the years. In modern times, the literacy rate for this field has lowered. Maybe it is our society stressing importance on material success that many incoming biology majors come into the field expecting a huge payout, but lack passion and practice. Or it is the educational system failing the modern student. Regardless, biology has a major has become a difficult field that requires understanding and patience. If there is anything, you should take away from this book, it is that writing in biology is difficult. It is manageable with true understanding of the field and the knowledge of your available resources. Throughout this volume I have covered many topics regarding writing in the field of biology that will give you an advantage in your college career. In chapter one, I reviewed existing literature and how good writing in this field depends on a professional consistent formula. In chapter two, I take you through genre theory and analyze genres within biology. Genres deriving from the classroom to the professional field. With my interviews from chapter three I am able to bring an insiderâ€™s perspective to assist my overall conclusions about writing in this major. Robin and Charlie were able to offer advice and insights through their own personal experiences. In chapter four, I was able to discuss the flaw I found to exist among biology in its relation to writing. The flaw not being the field itself but lack of readiness among incoming college biology majors. But, what is left to cover?
The truth is when it comes to writing in the discipline, biology in particular, you learn by doing. Not with just general knowledge like dissecting a frog to learn anatomy, but writing to learn how to write. The next time you are having difficulty with a written assignment in class, take a moment to look at previous works. Professors are efficient at retuning feedback, so when they do, examine it. Robin Jones kindly let me look at a lab report the teacher graded and returned to her. The lab was filled with red-inked notes in the margins of the page. These were a few of the professor’s notes: “Try to make your procedure more simplistic. I’m not sure what “pour it in” can mean.” “Don’t use first person” “Make sure to bring up your hypothesis in the conclusion. Was your hypothesis right, wrong, or neither?” In the first note, the professor comments on the ambiguity of her lab procedure. “It’s a common remark from the instructor,” Robin mentioned. “It’s something he stresses a lot in class.” Lab reports are essentially instruction manuals for studies (experiments) to be recreated. Hence, the procedure part of the lab must be correct, concise, and clear. In the second note, the professor acknowledges a major theme in the writing style in biology. Use third person, not first or second. In order to maintain a consistently professional tone, third person synergizes well in this discipline’s writings. Lastly, the third comment remarks on the connection between the introduction and the conclusion. All writings follow this notion of connecting the beginning to the end. However, instead of restating a thesis statement for writing, you restate the hypothesis or theory of the experiment.
When you are going through first year biology courses, be vigilant to common trends and common expectations of the required writings. You will make mistakes. Everyone does. Whether it is as simple as format or as complex as mixing hypothesis within an experiment, it can be learned from and lead to better results in the future. So, take this book to heart. Take a deep breath, relax, and work hard on your writing.
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